Who are you being funny for?

Desmond LaVelle

What makes a funny Super Bowl ad appealing – and to whom? Our VP Executive Creative Director, Desmond LaVelle, talked to Contagious to examine who’s laughing when it comes to Super Bowl ads:


A not-so-funny thing happened in February of 2016. A fetus leapt out of a woman to chase a Dorito chip that was thrown across a room. This was the punchline to a Super Bowl commercial from the crowd-sourced Doritos Crash the Super Bowl competition. The premise of “Ultrasound” was simple: A man eats from a bag of Doritos during his partner’s ultrasound and finds that his unborn child is drawn to the bold, nacho-flavored chip.

Amid mild controversy for its irreverent storyline, the ad was wildly popular. The USA Today Ad Meter, the Borg of Super Bowl ad quality, declared it the second-best commercial of the game. “Ultrasound” was also the most shared of 2016’s Super Bowl commercials, a title Budweiser had won the three previous years. Pretty much everyone loved “Ultrasound.” That is, everyone except for advertising snobs like us.

Awards, the greatest and only true measure of industry love, graced “Ultrasound” with just a single Clio. Clearly something wasn’t sitting well with award show juries. It wasn’t the irreverence of the spot. Our industry loves irreverence. We tattooed babies’ faces for fuck’s sake. No, it was the nineties cliché of someone being irrationally attracted to a product. It was low-hanging fruit executed in an over-the-top way. It was just too easy. Nope. We won’t tolerate easy humor.

We love difficult, complicated humor. We love expensive humor. We love ironic, self-aware humor. And most of all, we love humor that’s complicated and expensive but, ironically, doesn’t look like we’re trying too hard to be humorous. Oh, did I mention humor that plays to the medium in a nontraditional way? That, too. The confluence of all these things is the kind of humor that captures the admiration of an industry that takes humor very seriously.

As an industry person, one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen in a long time is last year’s Super Bowl campaign from Tide – “It’s a Tide Ad.” The campaign hijacked would-be advertising tropes throughout the Super Bowl and claimed them as their own. It was smart, expensive, ironic, self-aware and played with the medium in a not-so-traditional way. And it certainly didn’t look easy. As a result, the campaign collected a small pride of Lions in Cannes, including a Grand Prix for film and a Titanium Lion.

But what did the Borg think? The first “It’s a Tide Ad” spot to appear on the USA Today Ad Meter came in at number 16. It was preceded by old people doing young things, Danny DeVito asking strangers if they want to eat him, and two men recreating the final scene from Dirty Dancing.

The Super Bowl is a unique space to build for. As creatives, we feel like we have two audiences. On one hand, you have the mildly drunk mortgage broker who is only partially watching the game and partially engaged in a conversation about Fyre Festival. On the other hand, there’s the executive creative director who’d rather be watching jai alai. From a humor standpoint, that’s a pretty wide spectrum to cover. But every so often there’s a piece of Super Bowl comedy that’s universally appealing. Amazon’s “Alexa Loses Her Voice” and Snickers’ “Betty White” come to mind. These are concepts that were built around strong, human insights, are entertaining, well-crafted and made the most of their high-profile placement. They hit that elusive sweet spot of sophistication and accessibility. They’re simply really good ads.

If you’re ever lucky enough to be in the position of trying to write a funny script for the Super Bowl, block out all the outside anxieties that will motivate you to write for the highbrow tastes of our industry, or worse, embrace the groin shots that will bump you up the Ad Meter. Lean on your own comedic instincts. Use your talent to solve the problem in front of you. Listen to the data if you believe it. Listen to your colleagues if you trust them. But most of all, listen to yourself. After all, you’ve gotten you to where you are now.

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