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Super Bowl 50 ads: Expect brands to go lighthearted

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

Talk of Super Bowl ads always heats up in the days before the big game, but the event's 50th year may feel more momentous to big brands. That means more pressure to score a hit with viewers -- and at a steeper price than ever before, an average $4.8 million per 30 seconds. With so much at stake, brands are playing it safer than ever.

For years, beer brands and food products favored slapstick, bawdy humor. Think of the Doritos ad in which a baby uses a slingshot to steal a bag of chips, or the one in which a man bites into chips to magically rip a woman's clothes off; think of the Bud Light ad in which a dog is trained to fetch beer. Then the needle moved away from push-the-limits sex and humor, and toward heartstrings. Budweiser has proven itself the king of beers and sentimentality by bringing together its iconic Clydesdales with puppies in a series of commercials.

But some brands went too serious. Last year, a Nationwide ad about a child's death alienated viewers and was a P.R. disaster for the insurance brand.

Nat Ives, executive editor at AdAge, says serious ads can be a downer for fans, and that experts in the industry christened last year's game the Somber Bowl.

"You saw a trend toward pro-dad advertising... Progressive ads about blended families... It was a moving experience if you wanted that sort of thing," he says, "but there was also a safety ad in which a child died. It was a lot, in culmination. This year, the smart strategy is fun."

You can already spot the "fun" in some of the ads that brands have released early: a Kia ad in which Christopher Walken urges a man to break free of his beige life with some snazzy socks and, of course, a new Kia; an Audi ad in which a retired astronaut imagines he's back in space; a Mountain Dew ad featuring a horrifying (but funny) mashup of a puppy, monkey, and baby, offering a sly reference to the three animals most frequently used in Super Bowl ads.

Other brands try to generate Super Bowl buzz without buying a Super Bowl ad. Esurance, which won big last year by airing an ad right after the game ended, urging customers to tweet a certain hashtag to win money, is doing it again. The company's ad will run right before the game starts, and it asks customers to retweet Esurance tweets to win money. It makes the ask with a fun ad, narrated by celebrity spokesperson John Krasinski, in which people throw around a football made of money. It's likely to work again—who doesn't want to win money? Esurance CMO Alan Gellman tells Yahoo Finance it's about leveraging social media instead of the in-game airwaves. "Fans are becoming more and more engaged with the Super Bowl across multiple screens, and specifically using social media, we wanted to reach them in these places," he says. "Rather than simply releasing a commercial, we chose a 360-degree approach."

Of the Super Bowl ads released already, "What we've seen so far is pretty funny stuff," Ives says. "It's wacky, it's unique, it's bizarre sometimes." But it had better not be boring, or offensive. And brands are more nervous than ever of turning off viewers. Perennial advertisers like Budweiser (BUD) and PepsiCo-owned Doritos (PEP) will tread lightly. Every advertiser wants to be in the conversation at the water cooler the next day, but not for the wrong reasons.

"There's an enormous amount of fear," Ives says, "all around, no matter what."