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EPAM Continuum Chalk Talk: In Which We Eagerly Dissect the Ads of Super Bowl LIV

A Human-Centered Look at This Year's Super Bowl Commercials

February 6, 2020
by Dustin BoutetMargo Dunlap
SBadshero

When it comes to Super Bowl ads, we’re all Monday morning quarterbacks. Analyzing those massively over-hyped, ridiculously expensive segments of commercial airtime can be a lot of fun. Over at EPAM Continuum, this post-game analysis can get intense. Why? To us, the ads embody many of the trends and insights that inform our project work. In the dialogue below, our Dustin Boutet, Travel & Hospitality Lead, and Margo Dunlap, NXT Trend Research Group Lead, huddle up to provide some lively play-by-play. Enjoy the colorful commentary!

Be the One

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xPn4DXIj5w

Dustin Boutet

I love the sentiment. Katie Sowers had never seen a professional female football coach before, but that didn't mean she couldn’t become one. It feels like we're always talking to clients about how they have to be bold to truly innovate and disrupt an industry. 

Margo Dunlap

I like that angle, too. Being the first to do something is hard! That was one of the things I was most surprised by when I started working at EPAM Continuum—just how much of our work as consultants is social; helping clients get past the unease in their organization and make the case for the unknown. But to be honest, I've always felt like these kinds of ads are cheesy. I watch them and think: “I know you're trying to manipulate me!” 

There's definitely a trend right now of brand purpose—companies feel like both employees and customers want to know what they stand for. 

Dustin Boutet

You recognize that there is an ulterior motive, but you can't help getting caught up in it anyway. 

Margo Dunlap

Totally! Just gotta lean into it, I think.

Dustin Boutet

It's great that brands don't feel like it's a big risk to have someone from the LGBTQ community representing them. She's since become a bit of a lightning rod after the loss, but I think she's handled it with grace. 

Margo Dunlap

I think that there's a certain degree of feeling like it's a risk either way, so they might as well take a stance. There's definitely a trend right now of brand purpose—companies feel like both employees and customers want to know what they stand for. 

Dustin Boutet

Yeah, we saw that with Hallmark pulling ads that featured a same-sex couple and then quickly reversing that decision when it became a PR nightmare. They ended up aggravating both sides with their lack of a stance. 

Loretta

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xSxXiHwMrg

Dustin Boutet

This one hit pretty early in the game, and I'm sure we all pretended that we didn't get teary eyed during the biggest football competition of the year. It really yanked at the heartstrings, but I couldn't help feeling a little skeptical. We're seeing some of the biggest technology firms move into the healthcare space, and it's both exciting and worrisome. How does privacy play into this equation? Exactly how is all of this collected information going to be used in the future? Does this play into any trends you’re seeing around privacy, healthcare, and using AI to create better outcomes?

I really love that idea of leveraging computers to help slow the cognitive decline by prompting us, rather than taking over the task completely. 

Margo Dunlap

I was thinking about the studies that show that outsourcing cognitive tasks to computers actually makes us worse at remembering them. When we use GPS, for example, we don't memorize a route the way we would if we were figuring it out with a map. When computers do our thinking for us, it atrophies the neural connections we need to do that thinking on our own. It was a sweet commercial, and I am all for the point they made, and made successfully. I don't want to be a Grinch about that or miss that point. But I think a better interaction paradigm in this user case would be for Google to use the memories to prompt the user: “Hey Frank, what were Loretta's favorite flowers?” That kind of question could actually strengthen neural pathways. 

Dustin Boutet

I really love that idea of leveraging computers to help slow the cognitive decline by prompting us, rather than taking over the task completely. 

Quiet Revolution

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6EPPJHaCtw

The Heist

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UAgbv6993k

Let It Go

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvEAklsAAts

Dustin Boutet

I was really excited to see not one but three electric vehicle ads in this year’s Super Bowl. It feels like a real coming out party for EVs. I think we're starting to reach the tipping point for adoption and clearly the car companies feel it too. They're investing huge amounts of capital in manufacturing and technology as well as celebrity spokespeople. I think we’ll finally see the promised acceleration in EV adoption because of the number of companies that are working the consumer education piece. It’s been such a hurdle for the industry. 

Margo Dunlap

We’re at the tipping point with electric vehicles. Suddenly they’re everywhere and everyone’s making one.

Dustin Boutet

Is that a bad thing, though? Yes, there will be some failed efforts but it also means many more EVs out there. That's success in my book. 

Margo Dunlap

It’s a good thing!

Margo Dunlap

Right now, everyone’s fighting over the infrastructure around electric vehicles. It’s all about charging stations, networks, in-home charging technology. Electric vehicles change how cars work for us as a system. There’s a big service innovation opportunity here.

Electric vehicles have the opportunity to be something totally different—why recreate the same forms or try to copy the experience of the combustion engine automobile?

Dustin Boutet

Part of me wants the Hummer EV to stumble because it feels like it represents everything that I believe EVs can help fight. It just feels like an exercise in excess. Does anyone really need a 1,000 horsepower Hummer that can go 0-60 in three seconds? No, but I guess that's the Hummer brand, and at least they're committing to a position in the market. 

One of our engineers suggested that this could be a potential drive train to build something like an EV ambulance on. I love that notion.

Margo Dunlap

Agreed! Electric vehicles have the opportunity to be something totally different—why recreate the same forms or try to copy the experience of the combustion engine automobile? But I guess that's just the transition period for the market. Consumers want some familiar experience touchpoints mixed in with the new stuff, like the way EVs are silent. 

Dustin Boutet

If we're talking about mass adoption, then car companies will need to play it somewhat conservatively. They'll make different choices than Tesla or even start-ups like Lucid or Rivian would make. I do think we're going to lose some of the legacy thinking when it comes to the car-to-driver communication. We just published a piece talking about how these in-car interactions paradigms need to shift.

Margo Dunlap

Yeah, I really liked that thinking around how our vehicles communicate to us and vice versa. I remember that in the past with EVs, interaction designers were working on adding back in the aural communication that got lost without the engine. Acceleration didn't feel the same because it didn't sound the same, for example. It's interesting to see that these brands are now leaning in to the quiet. Especially for a brand called the Hummer!

Dustin Boutet

It’s a bit of a mismatch with the Hummer brand, but we'll see if it can be reimagined. Although the line-up of Audi, Hummer, and Porsche doesn't feel like they're positioned for the masses (all are priced over $70,000 for base models and the Porsche starts at $100,000), but it does signal a new wave of vehicles and hopefully consumer attitudes! I'm excited to see where it goes. 

Agape

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3LTR32dMgI

Margo Dunlap

Man, why are Super Bowl commercials so dramatic? Relax! [Laughter.] But I liked this one for the brief spotlight on healthcare workers and caregivers. Caregivers and home-care workers are both major lynchpins of the healthcare industry, but often overlooked or undervalued. Caregiver education and support are two challenges we've worked on in the past. 

There was a story in the New York Times a couple days ago about a home health aide that won the right to keep her employer's rent-controlled apartment, which is a really big deal because it begins to redefine that relationship as one closer to family.

Dustin Boutet

Yeah, a couple of these commercials really went all in on the emotional storytelling! The quick cuts of some poignant moments really get you. Your comment about the healthcare workers and caregivers makes me wonder: Are companies like New York Life investing in solutions or products that could help us solve some of the real issues that an aging population is dealing with? At the end of the day New York Life is selling insurance, and it didn't feel like they were pushing a product in this ad, but I hope they’re seeking solutions. 

Man, why are Super Bowl commercials so dramatic? Relax!

Margo Dunlap

It was a bit like the Microsoft spot, in that it felt like a commercial about brand values, not a specific product. 

Dustin Boutet

Maybe that’s why it stood out to me. There were a lot of commercials hawking products, but few just trying to express their brand and communicate what they value. 

Margo Dunlap

Those sort of sweeping, personal stories feel appropriate to the Super Bowl, where emotions are high and people are primed for high-stakes narratives. 

Dustin Boutet

This time it’s personal? [Laughter.]

Margo Dunlap

As personal as TV ads can get, I guess.

Image by Natasha Polozenko

filed in: NXT, travel and hospitality, healthcare

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