PARTY ON, CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENTS!
It’s two days later and I’m still trying to make sense of that Uber Eats Super Bowl commercial from the other night.
Specifically, why did fictional characters Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar—considered by no one since they were last seen decades ago putting on Waynestock, the biggest music festival in the world—emerge from the shadowlands of pop culture for a food delivery service? “As a local access show, we want everyone to support local,” says Wayne expositorily at the beginning of the spot, seemingly aware of the unanimous huh? heard around the world at the sight of him, yet seemingly unaware that Uber Eats' predatory 30% cut is literally putting local restaurants out of business. Never mind that if Wayne and Garth were real people (which they almost certainly are, somewhere, maybe even in Illinois), their tax bracket would have put them squarely in their own kitchens for the past year, eating three-day-old sandwiches like the rest of us, not ordering $12 pasta that balloons to $27.99 after tax, tip, and those damn delivery fees. It’s certainly a luxury that rap superstar Cardi B could afford, who happens to be hanging out with them—but only so Wayne and Garth can reassure us, winking, that she’s definitely not just a celebrity cameo. (Not!)
The spot has racked up more than 12 million views online as I write this, not including the millions from other content that accompanied it (like the three stars thanking the 29,151 restaurants on the platform in a two-and-a-half hour video, which I actually quite liked). I’m curious if these numbers have translated to more sales. Perhaps the spot did what the brand wanted it to. Perhaps it was a success.
But as a creative, when I evaluate ads, the number of impressions or growth-over-whatever never impresses me as much as the idea itself. And there is no amount of money, fame, or starpower that can replicate the magic of a great idea, like the one Reddit had in one of the best spots of the night. It required no celebrities, no CGI characters, and no hit songs. It didn’t even require an attention span. It was just a five-second slate of well-written copy, just long enough to make you want to pause. If you did, you were rewarded with an invitation to join like-minded, intellectually curious people on Reddit, which has a forum for every interest ranging from “Wayne’s World” to, well, Cardi B.
Ayyyyy, as Cardi would say, there’s the rub. We have too many interests—not on Reddit, but in reality. Few and far between are the things society collectively watches together; reads together; enjoys together. You must decide if you want to consume liberal or conservative media; which of the thousands of comedians on Twitter you’re going to follow; whether you’re going to subscribe to yet another content platform so you can watch that show your daughter recommended; whether you’re going to invest time and energy into learning TikTok dances or YouTube makeup techniques; whether you might throw your phone into the lake and go off the grid entirely. There are no wrong answers because no matter what you choose, you’ll have a tribe behind you making the same decisions and therefore experiencing the same version of reality you are. And you’ll go on like that for years and years, riding the undulating waves of comfort and isolation, the hallmarks of a polarized society; always feeling half at home and half lost.
Kids today might not understand, but there used to be a time when, despite our differences (which I have massively oversimplified here), television would pull a “Parent Trap” on us, forcing us all to sit quietly and play nice, if only for a half-hour season premiere. It was the salve that soothed a world beginning to rip apart at the seams. But in 2021, we do not gather on Thursday nights for the Must-See TV lineup. We do not rush home from dinner to make sure we catch the Grammys. Telethons are no longer even a thing. The Super Bowl is the one remaining night of the year when we’re captive, wide-eyed, and slightly drunk, just the way brands like us.
It makes sense that faced with this massive opportunity for exposure, a brand’s first thought is, “what’s something everyone likes?” That answer, of course, is celebrities. But that’s a cheap win; an easy out. If great advertising were as easy as hiring a celebrity, everyone would do it. Tellingly, when everyone did do it on Sunday night, the cameos blended together until they started to feel like a cavalcade of sameness—a brand’s worst nightmare. Consider it proof that advertising is an art, not a science. There’s no mathematical formula to virality; no powdery “just add water” chemical packet for success. When I think about the best ads, the ones that make me laugh, think, and most importantly, spend money, none of them were created in a petri dish to please everyone, like some sort of advertising Maroon 5. They come by their mass appeal honestly by answering a harder question, one that creatives are forced to ask themselves every day; not what's something everyone likes, but what’s something everyone knows is true?
This shift in thinking is the difference between a celebrity making a nothingburger cameo and a brilliant advertisement.
Many brands wielded their celebrities responsibly during this year’s Super Bowl, and I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge them. I loved seeing Tracy Morgan explain the difference between being “pretty sure” and “certain” in Rocket Mortgage’s ad. I also loved seeing Jason Alexander’s contorted face on that orange Tide sweatshirt. These spots were rooted in insightful human truths that exist even outside the advertising universe: “pretty sure” sounds casual, but its consequences are untold. Just because a sweatshirt looks clean, doesn’t mean it’s not full of stains (and quietly suffering).
This logical rigor, incidentally, is also why Ryan Reynolds has been so successful at his transition from acting to advertising. His ads for Aviation Gin, Mint Mobile, and Match demonstrate that he knows when a celebrity is, and is not, an idea. Mr. Reynolds talking to the camera about Mint Mobile? Not an idea. Monica Ruiz drowning her sorrows in an Aviation Gin ad three days after the world lambasted her performance in a Peloton commercial? Great idea.
So I hope Cardi B, Mike Meyers, and Dana Carvey were happy with their performances the other night.
But if Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar were real people, I think Wayne would have taken a long, sad, Monica Ruiz-style swig of PBR.
And Garth would have turned to Wayne and said the same thing he said in “Wayne’s World” 30 years ago: “It’s like people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad.”