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If the Super Bowl is advertising’s peerless platform—and it is, with north of 110 million viewers and a prized place in marketing history—is it any wonder some performers crack under the pressure?

“Safe, lazy, boring,” one observer called the crop of ads last year. Some critics claim that Super Bowl ads’ creativity is bottoming out, while each year the pressures seem only to rise, from the increasing price of a 30-second spot to the harsh scrutiny on social media. Minimizing rather than taking risks seems to be the order of the day.

“The Super Bowl is terrifying. But there are two types of fear–one that cripples and one that drives–and this is very evident when you see the breadth of work from the last couple of years. There are brands that totally go for it and brands that totally bottle it, but the biggest shame are the brands that initially go full pelt but get scared at the last minute,” said Richard Brim, chief creative officer of adam&eveDDB. “These brands land smack in the middle and that’s the most boring place to be. Everyone ignores the middle.” 

Cultural land mines and hefty production budgets mean “more and more cooks in the kitchen when it comes to making a decision,” said Gordy Sang, co-founder and co-CCO of indie agency Quality Meats. “So the final product ends up being a tad overcooked and lacking flavor.” 

In a post-Covid era, brands are dishing out distraction and comfort. That has translated to star-studded ads with a harmless (some might argue toothless) tone, according to Gabriel Miller, president of the Americas at Landor & Fitch.

The days of the grandiose ‘OMFG, did you just see what I saw from that brand’s commercial’ are gone.

—Gabriel Miller, president of the Americas, Landor & Fitch

“Probably 65 or 70% of ads will use a celebrity to borrow equity to help enhance awareness of their brand message,” Miller said. “We know it can work, but it’s not new—it’s expected.” 

The nature of the Big Game itself has changed over time, causing a shift in advertisers’ approach, said Miller, noting that it’s gone from sports contest to marketing extravaganza. Releasing ads in advance is a modern phenom, which spoils the surprise that audiences felt in decades past, he said, while more effort goes into a broader communications plan as opposed to the yesteryear tradition of putting all the eggs in one showstopping basket.

“The days of the grandiose ‘OMFG, did you just see what I saw from that brand’s commercial’ are gone,” Miller said. 

ADWEEK, in combing through the ad archives, has identified some standouts that moved the needle and racked up awards—some did both, and some are just too brilliant to ignore. Read on for a sampling of our favorite creative pioneers: 

Apple “1984” (1984) 

Agency: Chiat\Day 

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