Celebrities, humor and a huge dose of nostalgia will dominate Sunday’s Super Bowl ads

Big brands that have in some cases sat out for years the TV advertising frenzy around the biggest US sporting event — the Super Bowl — are returning Sunday and spending big amid record ad prices. It’s been a bumpy couple years marked by pandemic-era restraint and political polarization, but the American football championship offers an increasingly unequalled viewership too big to pass up.

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Companies such as General Motors, PepsiCo and Facebook parent Meta Platforms are betting millions of dollars that nostalgic Super Bowl ads, many featuring 1980s and 1990s celebrities or music, will connect with viewers during Sunday’s big game.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Salma Hayek and Mike Myers will pitch new electric vehicles for BMW and GM. Lindsay Lohan, Dennis Rodman and William Shatner want you to work out at Planet Fitness. And others, such as Kevin Hart and Andy Richter, will promote Sam’s Club and avocados from Mexico.

With the average 30-second Super Bowl ad costing about $6.5 million, advertising executives and experts say such ads are attempting to reach key age demographics — millennials, Gen Xers and even Baby Boomers — while providing a little oasis from Covid-19 pandemic concerns and divisive politics.

“Nostalgia is a really good way to tap into positive memories that large portions of viewing audience will have,” said Mitchell Olsen, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “It’s an opportunity to attach your brands with some of those positive associations.”

The ads are riding a wave of reboots from Hollywood studios and streaming services ranging from “The Karate Kid” and “Top Gun” to “Saved by the Bell” and “The Mighty Ducks” — all entertainment titles from the ’80s and ’90s.

Dust off your cassette tapes

There’s also the music, which may have some viewers thinking about dusting off their cassette tapes.

Songs from artists such as Salt-N-Pepa (“Push It”), Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and Simple Minds (“Don’t You [Forget About Me]”), among others, are sure to have viewers who pine for the ’80s humming along. Even this year’s halftime show, which stars rap icons Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige and Eminem, is tracking this vibe.

“The ’80s and ’90s are having a massive resurgence now,” said GM Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl. “There’s a huge familiarity.”

GM, for a second consecutive year, rebooted a 1990s film for a Super Bowl ad. Last year the automaker resurrected “Edward Scissorhands,” a movie from 1990, for a Cadillac ad and this time around Mike Myers is reclaiming his role as Dr. Evil in an “Austin Powers”-themed commercial from the spy comedy trilogy, which debuted in 1997.

Paying millions on nostalgia for bygone times is a gamble, experts say, that may not connect with younger viewers. That’s why, at the same time, advertisers like GM are attempting to drum up hype on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, among other social media names, before the commercials debut on Sunday.

“There’s no question that there is a risk that people might not know what you’re talking about, but, at the same time, the younger generation has shown an openness to watch the things that older people watched,” said Jed Meyer, senior vice president at Kantar, a data analytics and brand consulting firm.

Kantar reported last year’s Super Bowl generated $434.5 million of in-game ad revenue, higher than the World Series and NBA Finals and second only to the Olympic Games, which this year take place over 16 days.

At $6.5 million for a 30-second spot, up $1 million from 2021, revenue is projected to surpass last year’s total, and advertisers are expected to get more bang for their buck. Super Bowl 56 between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams is anticipated to reach a record audience following years of declining viewership.

Reliving glory days

Meta and Frito-Lay don’t feature major stars from the ’80s or ’90s in their ads, but the entire premise of both spots is reliving glory days, albeit in different ways.

Meta’s ad follows the journey of a singing animatronic dog that’s put out to pasture after a Chuck E. Cheese-type restaurant shuts down. He’s seriously down on his luck until someone saves him to be a prop at a store that sells the company’s Quest 2 virtual reality headset. In the VR world, or metaverse, he reunites with his animatronic bandmates at a virtual version of the restaurant.

The Meta ad — called “Old Friends, New Fun” — is largely silent aside from Simple Minds’ 1985 quintessential new wave pop song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

Similarly, Frito-Lay’s “Golden Memories” ad features actors Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd talking about their glory days over a bag of Lay’s chips, ahead of Rogan getting married. They comedically reminisce about their first road trip in 1997 to Rogan recently meeting his “bride,” a zombie/ghost in a house he purchased.

The commercial features Shania Twain’s 1997 hit, “You’re Still the One.”

‘People are ready to be happy’

Whether the Super Bowl ads are nostalgic or not, many of the prereleased ones are meant to be funny.

“After several years in kind of a Covid, downtrodden mood for everything, people are ready to be happy now,” said Robert Kolt, a Michigan State University advertising professor and Super Bowl ad guru. “People want to feel good.”

The use of comedy as well as a host of celebrities is seen as a safe bet by advertisers looking to connect with audiences, according to the expert.

For example, used-vehicle sales site Carvana features a comical oversharing mom; Amazon‘s Alexa reads the minds of celebrity couple Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost; and comedian Kevin Hart acts like he’s a VIP in a Sam’s Club, among others.

“It’s humor and relatability,” said Ryan Keeton, a co-founder and chief brand officer of Carvana, of its Super Bowl ad.

There also will be plenty of animals in the Super Bowl mix. They include a robot dog for Kia and animals — led by a bird voiced by Megan Thee Stallion — singing Salt-N-Pepa’s 1987 hit “Push It” after eating Flamin’ Hot Doritos and Cheetos.

Budweiser, a stalwart of Super Bowl advertising, also will feature the journey of an injured Clydesdale horse to recovery with the assistance of a friendly dog.

“Whatever makes people feel some kind of emotion, it’s going to be a good ad. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we like the animals so much. Who doesn’t love a dog?” Kolt said. “Humor is just what people need right now and I think advertisers will give it to us this year.”

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