When did Tide get so meta? Super Bowl ads turn self-referential

The hopes of many a party host and advertising enthusiast hung in the balance on February 4, as audiences preparing to tune in to Super Bowl LII hoped desperately for ad redemption in this year’s commercial breaks. After many 2017 spots featured tentative brand positioning related to touchy political and cultural themes, it was difficult to see if advertisers could recover during the 2018 broadcast—either through more of the same political tone, or through a total redirect. In an effort to avoid wading in the murky waters of contemporary discourse, advertisers instead stayed put in the shallows, leaning heavily on the motifs of the most well-known, successful throwback content from decades of football’s biggest night.

Some brands stuck to the 2017 script with their ads during this year’s big game, which saw the Philadelphia Eagles defeat the New England Patriots with an average television audience of 103.4 million. Toyota used their warily comedic spot, titled “One Team,” to encourage fans of different backgrounds to table their respective sermons in favor of the proverbial love of the game. With “American Factory,” WeatherTech doubled down on the manic made-in-America trope with a politically charged depiction of domestic construction—with a deeply obvious intended audience at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Still others, like Dodge Ram, were too quixotic about their own message to anticipate a negative response to their use of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech to advertise pickup trucks at the start of Black History Month.

Despite the handful of such attempts, though, the year was an improvement over last, with very few ads relying on clichés to support their attempts to pick political sides. But a new year brings new crises of public opinion—and new opportunities for a brand to put its carefully-curated foot in its mouth.

Kesha performing at the 2018 Grammys.

This year, of course, was colored through the lens of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The #MeToo and subsequent Time’s Up movements have prompted public relations and marketing responses with varying degrees of efficacy, as individuals, companies and industries scramble to get ahead of both organizational and branding catastrophes-in-the-making.

Performers and participants in award shows in January took advantage of their national platform to denounce the accused in their industries. The 2018 Golden Globe Awards saw many stars wearing black to raise awareness for the Time’s Up movement; musicians wore white and incorporated white rose imagery into their performances at the 2018 Grammy Awards, and spoke of their commitment to eradicating such assault and harassment within their industry.

Such a commitment wasn’t expected from the NFL, and few held their breath awaiting a #MeToo spot between Bud Light commercials. Rather than taking even the weakest of stances, though, many advertisers avoided this year’s complicated issues and related brand risks entirely—and dove straight into feel-good, often humorous references to established Super Bowl ad tropes.

Pepsi relied upon its own greatest hits in this year’s Super Bowl advertising.

With “This is the Pepsi,” the softdrink giant’s in-house ads team referenced multiple campaigns, product placement, and iconic moments featuring a Pepsi can: from Cindy Crawford’s canonized 1992 Super Bowl spot to the newfangled Pepsi bottles featured in Back to the Future. The brand pulled these highlights from its own advertising in an attempt to re-create the goodwill it accrued through these old initiatives. NBC singing competition show, The Voice, took it even further, loading up on as many Americana ad themes (i.e. Budweiser images) as they could in a one-minute commercial.

But only one can take the self-referential crown. Tide, a Proctor & Gamble (P&G) brand known for inventive Super Bowl ads, ran a total of four spots during the game.

The laundry detergent brand enjoyed widely favorable reception to its 2017 integrated ad campaign, which featured former star quarterback Terry Bradshaw. During the game, Bradshaw provided commentary with a large stain on his shirt—and did not indicate that the stain was intentional until an ad revealed it was a planned part of the campaign’s narrative. #BradshawStain was organically trending on Twitter before the big reveal; afterwards, the audience responded favorably to the fake-out. The Bradshaw Stain campaign won 12 Cannes Lions awards for creators Saatchi & Saatchi.

Rather than trying to create the next big Super Bowl innovation once again in 2018, the Tide team instead enlisted beloved Stranger Things actor David Harbour to walk viewers through some of the greatest conventions of Super Bowl advertising history—and to explain that, because each of these archetypal concepts features characters in stain-free clothing, these various ads must be Tide ads by default. From luxury cars to beer, from mattresses to deoderant and more, the intensely meta “Every Ad is a Tide Ad” campaign opened with a minute-long spot that primed the shorter ones lined up for the rest of the game.

Leaning into the greatest hits gets easier when those hits are from a simpler time—when Old Spice could simply rely on captivating audiences through incredulity, Budweiser could convert audiences using puppies and Clydesdales, and teenagers weren’t eating Tide Pods for the ‘gram. By harkening back to such vintage gems (and by doing so without a single Pod in sight, instead opting for the less-appetizing liquid detergent bottles), Tide continued to break the fourth wall for audiences while simultaneously building one up around its recent PR woes.

Inforum and others referred to Tide’s tactics as “trolling other popular commercials.” But is it trolling if the victims benefit? A rising tide lifts all boats (forgive the thoroughly intended pun), even if those boats have become a bit camp over the years. Sure, Lincoln may have cringed a bit, but most of the other references in the Tide campaign are broad enough to evoke images of the ad segment—without singling out a particular brand to bear the brunt of the parody.

But the additional genius of the Tide campaign can be found in the creative that was exceedingly specific.While the rest of the ads address only the models that constitute a Super Bowl spot, the only spots recreated with absolute precision featured three of P&G’s other iconic brands: Mr. Clean, Gillette, and Old Spice. The tone of these spots seemed to applaud the creative rolled out by these brands in their own advertising. P&G was able to remind viewers of popular ad campaigns associated with the parent company; Isaiah Mustafa’s “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” character never even made it to the Super Bowl in his own ad. This campaign gave a good-natured bump to other companies under the P&G umbrella. Rising tide, indeed.

For Super Bowl LII, brands spared no expense pursuing timeless humor—or, at least, humor not related to the touchy discourse of the past couple of years. Is there a right time to table the discourse in favor of a good-natured chuckle? It’s difficult to say—but the stakes are rarely higher than they are at the Super Bowl. So if we can’t hope for cultural revolution in our Super Bowl ads, at least we can hope to get another Busta Rhymes verse out of Peter Dinklage (hey, maybe David Harbour will join the party).

Leanna Bornkamp


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