NEW YORK – Super Bowl ads this year morphed into mini soap operas.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson shrugged off aliens so he could get more milk for his kids in a Super Bowl spot for the Milk Processor Education Program. Anheuser-Busch's commercial told the story of a baby Clydesdale growing up and returning to his owner for a heartfelt hug years later. And a Jeep ad portrayed the trials and triumphs of families waiting for their return of family members.
The reason for all the drama off the field? With 30-second spots going for as much as $4 million this year and more than 111 million viewers expected to tune in, marketers are constantly looking for ways to make their ads stand out. And it's increasingly difficult to captivate viewers with the cliche plots of babies, celebrities, sex and humor that they've become almost immune to -- unless there's a story attached.
"A lot of advertisers are running long commercials to tell these stories that engage people often in a very emotional way," said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. "These spots that tell stories really stand out in the clutter."
TEAR-JERKING MINI EPICS
Chrysler started the long-format commercial trend last year, with a two-minute spot starring Clint Eastwood that became very popular.
This year, Chrysler led the trend again with its two-minute salute to troops and their families. The ad featured Oprah Winfrey reading a letter from the Jeep brand to encourage families to stay hopeful.
"Wendy Ochoa, a high school teacher who lives in Novi, Michigan, said the ad was very emotional. "It tugs on your heartstrings, how can it not," Ochoa, 44, said.
Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch pulled at heartstrings with a spot about a baby Clydesdale growing up and moving away from his farm and his trainer. The horse remembered the trainer after returning for a parade, and raced to hug him.
"The Budweiser commercial with the Clydesdale made me cry," said Wendy Ponzo, 49, who was watching the game in Pont Pleasant, N.J. "I can relate to that."
Lincoln's 90-second ad was inspired by Tweets by fans about road trips sent to Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
The ad shows adventures during a fictional road trip. A woman picks up a German hitchhiker, and they go to an alpaca farm, get stopped by turtles crossing the road, and drive through a movie set.
Rap pioneer Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and Wil Wheaton, who acted in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," made cameos.
Audi's 60-second ad featured an ending that was voted on by viewers prior to the game. The ad showed a boy gaining confidence from driving his father's Audi to the prom, kissing the prom queen and getting decked by the prom king.
The Audi mini-epic was a favorite of Super Bowl viewer Stephanie Bice, 39, a business development director in Oklahoma City.
"It was fun and whimsical," Bice said.
COMEDY GOES LONG
Not all of the storytelling ads were dramatic, though.
Samsung's two-minute ad showed Seth Rogen ("The Guilt Trip" and Paul Rudd ("Role Models") getting called in to do a "Next Big Thing" ad for Samsung. But they're agitated once they realize that they're sharing the spotlight. LeBron James, an NBA basketball player for the Miami Heat, makes a cameo, appearing on the screen of a tablet.
The ad won over some fans in the ad world.
"I could watch the Samsung ad over and over again," said David Berkowitz, vice president at digital marketing agency 360i. "It's as good as any Seth Rogen movie."
Budweiser, a long-time Super Bowl advertiser, also told mini-movies in its two of its ads. One showed rival 49ers and Ravens fans each creating a voodoo doll for the other team with the help of R&B legend Stevie Wonder. In the other ad, fans go to great lengths to curse a rival fan's "lucky chair."
"It's only weird if it doesn't work," reads the copy.
And Mercedes-Benz's 90-second ad had a Faustian plot.
A devilish Willem Dafoe ("Spider-Man") shows a man everything that comes with a Mercedes-Benz CLX: A date with supermodel Kate Upton, dancing with Usher, driving around with beautiful girls, getting on the cover of magazines including Vanity Fair and GQ, getting to drive on a racetrack.
He almost signs his soul away for the car. But then he sees a billboard that says the car starts at $29,900, and doesn't sign.
NOT EVERY AD TELLS A STORY
Although many advertisers tried to pull people in with lengthy story lines, there were a few that stuck with short, quirky spots with no particular plot.
GoDaddy.com's spot was one of them. It showed a close up, extended kiss between supermodel Bar Refaeli and a nerdy guy wearing glasses to illustrate GoDaddy's combo of "sexy" and "smart." The clip became a hot topic of office conversations, with some being grossed out, while other noting that was exactly the point, as this is the spot everyone's talking about.
Best Buy's 30-second ad in the first quarter starred Amy Poehler, of NBC's "Parks and Recreation," asking a Best Buy employee endless questions about electronics.
"Will this one read "50 shades of Grey to me in a sexy voice," Poehler asks about an e-book reader. When the staffer says no she asks, "Will you?"
And Oreo's ad featured a showdown in a library between people fighting over whether the cookie or the cream is the best part of the cookie.
The joke? The fight escalates into thrown chairs and other destruction, but because the fight is in a library, everyone still has to whisper.