This year’s commercial lineup had its standouts—most notably ads that used storytelling at the center. Let’s examine this year’s common theme and what caused a handful of ads hit the mark.
Every first (or second) Sunday in February, we brace ourselves for creative firepower. This year some brands showed up in unexpected ways—Farmer’s Dog’s “Forever” and NFL’s “Run with It” immediately come to mind—while other ads relied on celebrity endorsements and easy humor that did little to inspire.
The big game is one of advertising’s biggest stages. According to NFL data, more than 208 million people tuned in last year alone. Brands spend millions of dollars (around $7 million for 30 seconds, to be more specific) to share their products with a massive, captive viewership—ready to share, retweet, and meme their ad into oblivion. It’s the time to show up.
So, why did only a few brands take this opportunity to tell a story?
Let’s examine last Sunday’s advertising slate and why only a handful of ads truly hit the mark.
This Year’s Ad Strategy
With the exception of a few bright spots, most of this year’s gameday ads relied on pop-culture references, celebrity appearances, and lighthearted humor.
Sunday’s crowded ad field was full of pop-culture staples from decades past—Alicia Silverstone’s Cher reprisal for Rakuten, Walter White’s rise as king of a PopCorner’s snack empire, and so many more.
We also saw spot after spot leveraging celebrity to make an impression—Hellman’s pun on Jon Hamm and Brie Larson’s last names (featuring Pete Davidson) immediately comes to mind.
Why? As brands zeroed in on beloved TV shows and films, it’s clear that many marketers predicted an audience in need of a comforting escape. And nothing does the trick like familiar faces and easy laughs.
“Super Bowl ads are always a reflection of the country, to some degree,” Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, told CBS News. “Companies are sticking with lighthearted advertising as a safe approach given all the challenges facing the country.”
It makes sense. Are the ads fun? Sure.
Are they resonant? Memorable? Do they tie back to brand identity? Maybe.
Celebrity Can Still Add Value
Most of the celebrity-fueled spots failed to resonate, but there were a few ideas that connected. A perfect example: Dunkin’s “Drive-Thru” with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.
Dunkin’ “Drive-Thru” Starring Ben Affleck
In “Drive-Thru,” Affleck works the busy drive-thru lane at a local Dunkin’ location, eliciting shock and selfie requests from real-life customers. It’s not a disjointed partnership—Affleck’s devotion to the Massachusetts-based coffee chain has been very well documented over the years. This makes for a more meaningful and timely connection between the brand, its spokesperson, and the audience. There’s even a well-timed and self-aware cameo from Jennifer Lopez to top it all off.
Storytelling Over Star Power
While other ads leveraged celebrity spotting over story, two of Sunday’s best-performing ads delivered powerful narratives—interestingly, both with canine-centered creative.
First up: “Forever” by Farmer’s Dog.
“Forever”: The Farmer’s Dog 2023 Super Bowl Commercial
Directed by Filmsupply filmmaker Goh Iromoto, the as-time-goes-by ad follows Ava and her puppy Bear on a 60-second journey of their many milestones. Finally, we see a grown Ava and a white-faced Bear.
As she sings to her best friend, the commercial cuts to a montage of Bear’s memories. They’ve experienced so much together, and will continue to do so, thanks to the product.
The spot connects viewers to its product through powerful storytelling, stunning visuals, and a perfect song choice. It checks every box. The USA Today Ad Meter agrees—the DTC pet food brand’s first-ever spot was this year’s winner, with a score of 6.56 out of 10.
As we attempt to regain our emotional composure, let’s shift to another top gameday ad: Amazon’s “Saving Sawyer.”
Saving Sawyer | Amazon’s Big Game Ad
Most of us would like to permanently pack away those early pandemic memories, but Amazon leans into them with a powerful ad that reminds us that our anxiety-ridden lockdown was our pets’ glorious vacation. The 90-second spot follows a real-life rescue as he comes to terms with his family returning to life outside of lockdown—a situation that every pet owner knows all too well.
After witnessing Sawyer’s destructive cries for help and fearing the worst, it’s revealed that the expedited crate isn’t to transport him to the shelter. Instead, the speedy Amazon purchase is in preparation for his new best friend’s arrival. Just like “Forever,” we laugh when the pup “rearranges” the home, and we tear up as we anticipate a rough moment.
Through powerful storytelling, both ads make an emotional connection, capture the present moment, and spotlight the real reasons we buy things. They didn’t create buzz for the sake of it—they zeroed in on stories that resonated with the big game’s diverse audience and absolutely nailed it.
We get it—marketers are in a difficult position. Between the pandemic, inflation, and other industry shifts, it’s tempting to take a safer route—something guaranteed to crack a smile or feel familiar.
However, it skips the deep strategy work and storytelling needed to unlock something bigger—a message that sticks around beyond today’s timeline.
When brands only have a few (very expensive) seconds to make it count, this year’s ad assortment proves nothing outperforms a powerful story.