NEW YORK – Forget slapstick and sex in Super Bowl ads: This year, serious was the name of the game.
Nationwide ran an ad on preventable childhood death. Carnival struck a somber note with a voiceover by John F. Kennedy speaking lyrically about the sea. And a public service announcement by coalition No More depicted a chilling 911 call from a battered woman to demonstrate the terror of domestic abuse.
Other advertisers had positive, albeit equally serious themes: McDonald's said it would let some customers pay with acts of kindness, Coca-Cola showed online negativity and bullying turning positive and Procter & Gamble's ad for its Always feminine products brand tried to redefine what it means to do things like a girl.
"It's a shame there aren't any commercials for antidepressants because these commercials make me want some," said Jon Early, who was watching the game in New York with friends. "Football is supposed to be an escape."
The serious tone is an effort to win over Americans who have a lower tolerance for crass ads with an overuse of sexually explicit themes and sophomoric humor. They also have short attention spans these days, thanks to bite-sized communication of social media.
The serious spots were a continuation of a trend that started last year when advertisers shied away from the tactics that had been commonplace during Super Bowl. The difference this year is that many of the serious ads had an overarching "message" to live better, think better and be better.
With 30-second ads costing $4.5 million for the chance to market their brand to 110-plus million Americans, advertisers were trying to make their mark by marketing socially-conscious messages. In the process, they hoped to boost the image of their brands.
"The Super Bowl reflects what's happening in the country," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "Maybe in the country today we're a little more reflective and a little more pensive."
A Microsoft ad with a voiceover by rapper Common told the story of Braylon O'Neill, a boy who was born missing the tibia and fibula bones in both of his legs so he had to learn to live with prosthetic legs developed by Microsoft.
The ad struck some similar notes with Toyota's Camry ad, which featured Paralympian Amy Purdy, who also has prosthetic legs snowboarding and dancing set to a speech by Muhammad Ali that ends "I'll show you how great I am."
Some serious ads bordered on sober. Nissan returned to the Super Bowl after 18 years with an ad featuring the story line of an up-and-coming race driver and his wife struggling to balance work and raising their son. In a jarring detail that many on social media pointed out, the ad was set to "Cats in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin, who was killed in a car crash.
And a Nationwide ad showed a boy riding a school bus and lamenting he'll never learn to fly, or travel the world with my best friend, or even grow up, because he died in an accident. The ad was aimed at stopping preventable childhood accidents, but Charles Taylor, marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania, said the ad received the most negative response from his ad viewing panel.
"It's just playing with fire focusing on an adolescents' death in the context of the Super Bowl," he said.
POSITIVE BUT SERIOUS
Other advertisers tried to implore people to do positive things.
In apparent commentary on how heavily food companies market to Americans, Weight Watchers' Super Bowl debut ad showed pizza, doughnuts in large portions with an ominous voiceover saying "You gotta eat, right?" A tagline said Weight Watcher can help members take control.
But it didn't resonate with all viewers, many of whom were at Super Bowl parties eating snacks. "Some people are saying it made them want to eat more than anything," said Villanova's Taylor.
Meanwhile, fast food chain McDonald's announced it will let random customers pay for their food with acts of goodwill, such as calling their moms and telling them they love them as part of a Valentine's Day promotion that will start Monday.
HUMOR IN BETWEEN
Not all ads were serious, though.
Nationwide's other ad showed "Mindy Project" star Mindy Kaling walking around New York believing she is invisible and doing scandalous acts, including sitting naked in Central Park and going through a car wash. Then she tries to kiss Matt Damon but he can see her. The idea is Nationwide doesn't treat customers like they're invisible.
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher, a psychotherapist watching the game in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said the ad appealed to her. "It sucked you in as a plot and then ruined it for her," she said.
Another ad scored early. Chevrolet's spot before kickoff appeared to be a live game feed that turned into static and a blank screen, shocking some viewers. Chevrolet used the trick to show that its Colorado truck has 4G LTE Wi Fi, allowing for live game streaming in the truck.
"That one got all of our attention," said Kirin Jessel, who watched the game with co-workers in Oakland, Calif. "We were thinking `Oh my God, what's happening."'