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The Rising but Risky Use of Humor in Super Bowl Ads

There’s a reason why brands aim to connect with audiences using humor, and quite often do so during the Super Bowl. In fact, humor has been on the rise in Big Game ads for years – and despite the fact that 72% of 2023 Super Bowl ads applied humor, the mood of the audience points to even more tickling of the funny bone this year.

iSpot’s all-industry Creative Assessment database reveals only 23% of all ads last year (norm) connected through humor – and the reason is there is inherent risk in trying to be funny. Making people laugh is far harder than it seems, but brands advertising in the Super Bowl are definitely throwing the long ball.

Defining Funny Ads

In its simplest form, a Funny* ad makes viewers laugh. In the iSpot Creative Assessment database of Super Bowl ads since 2014, the All-Time MVP – pulling a perfect 10 score on the Funny emotion –  is Doritos’ 2014 “Time Machine,” which saw a little boy create a time machine that would only run on a full bag of Doritos. Unsuspecting ‘time travelers’ thus supplied the crafty kid with his favorite snack. Viewers at the time found this spot highly Ingenious*, Quirky*, and Memorable* as well as Funny, appealing to a very broad audience – perfect for the Super Bowl.

Emotional profile for 2014 Doritos “Time Machine”

But times are different now – what was funny in 2014 might not be today, and executing a concept that is universally funny is much harder ten years later given heightened societal and political sensitivities.

In fact, Creative Assessment identifies three distinct forms of humor that can lead to widely differing reactions across a broad audience. With 57 unique emotions scored in viewer verbatim comments on every ad, the presence and level of negative emotion even if Funny, reveals ads that are either:

  1. Safe: the frequently-targeted humor level for the Super Bowl’s massive and diverse audience. 
  2. Edgy: often taken by brands willing to take a little risk to get noticed. 
  3. Polarizing: the riskier approach sometimes tied to purposeful social/political statements and/or poorly executed or offensive humor. Common negative emotions associated with this form of humor include WTF*, Irksome*, Eerie*, Incredulous*, Waste of Time*, and Boring*.

Last year, 18% of Super Bowl ads landed as Edgy, with 10% being Polarizing.

Super Bowl Ads Playing it Safe

Safe ads tend to avoid off-putting, offensive, or confusing humor that only some might ‘get,’ and as such, generate broad appeal. Viewer response clearly delineates across the three classes of humor, evidenced by actual comments from last year’s audience. Playing it too safe is not void of risk and can sometimes spark negative emotion, feeling lame or boring to viewers.

Examples of “Safe” Super Bowl Ads from 2023

Planters “The Roast of Mr. Peanut”

Bud Light “Hold”

Dunkin’ “Drive-Thru Worker”

Super Bowl Ads Living on the Edge

Edgy humor in advertising finds brands playing it a little less safe, perhaps going a bit off-beat or featuring characters/celebrities that are less broadly appealing. Such humor may represent a brand’s ethos and as such, is a fitting representation to consumers (think Old Spice).

Other brands might employ this approach when trying to stand out. The impact of a Super Bowl ad extends far beyond the game, so an ad that keeps people talking could be worth the risk for some brands.

Examples of “Edgy” Super Bowl Ads from 2023

Doritos “Jack’s New Angle”

Workday “Rock Star” 

Crown Royal “Thank You, Canada” 

Crossing the Line?

While going all-in on humor, some brands may go so offbeat (at times to appeal to a specific, limited target) that far too many miss the joke. Some find the humor hysterically entertaining while others see it as immature, raunchy, inappropriate, or even offensive. Obviously, brands don’t intend to turn viewers off, but it happens nearly every Super Bowl, even if inadvertently. Taking such a risk, or running a targeted ad, without pre-testing potential reactions – particularly in front of advertising’s largest and most expensive audience – makes a brand unnecessarily vulnerable, with positive business impact far less guaranteed.

Examples of “Polarizing” Super Bowl Ads from 2023

Ram “Premature Electrification”

M&M’s “Candy-Coated Clam Bites”

Tubi “Down the Rabbit Hole”

Following the Trends, Not the Headlines

In response to rising discourse and attempts to cancel less trendy figures over the past four years, Super Bowl advertisers have made a measurable effort to hit the most funny bones, with “Safe” humor rising sharply and “Polarizing” on the decline, as shown in the chart below.

In fact, nearly every national pod during Super Bowl LVII aired at least one, and often multiple, Funny ads. Snacks brands have dominated the apex of Funny Super Bowl ads for years.

Suffice it to say, it’s safe to prepare to get a good laugh on February 11th. Based on the patterns in the chart above, however, might 2024 turn Edgy again, or will brands continue to play it Safe? Or with an election approaching, could the Big Game be lining up for Polarizing political discourse anew?

Stay on top of emerging Big Game ad trends as they unfold in our Super Bowl 2024 Ad Center, which features the latest teasers and pre-releases. Request VIP access for a front-row seat to media and creative performance metrics for every Big Game ad that airs on February 11, including likeability, attention, and emotional impact, all within the iSpot dashboard.

*Indicates one of the 57 emotional metrics iSpot Creative Assessment measures for every TV and video ad.