Super Bowl Ads Play It Safe, Sticking to the Script

Advertisers dusted off their well-worn playbooks for Super Bowl 50, deploying a combination of humor, celebrities and plenty of animals in their annual appeal for the attention of the game's more than 100 million viewers.

Several commercials offered more serious, socially conscious messages. But with 30 seconds of commercial time going for $5 million during CBS's national broadcast on Sunday, many advertisers played it safe and went for big laughs — or at least smiles.

"Same old, same old," said Andrew Essex, former vice chairman of the advertising agency Droga5. "Celebrity, silly and deadly serious seems to be the new formula."

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Despite changes in viewing habits and marketing budgets in the last several years, the Super Bowl remains the premier annual showcase for advertisers. Commercials that connect with viewers can reap huge dividends for the companies behind them, while ads that fall flat, beyond being a financial failure, can also harm a brand's reputation with consumers. It is a reality that results in some companies taking risks, while others take a more cautious route.

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It seemed at times during this year's game as if there were enough animals to fill a small zoo. A Budweiser commercial, though devoid of cute puppies, did feature the famous Clydesdales. A spot for Heinz starred a stampede of wiener dogs sprinting toward a family in ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce bottle costumes.

Anthropomorphic animals also made their usual appearance. A spot for Honda featured a flock of sheep singing the lyrics to Queen's "Somebody to Love." In an ad for Hyundai, two bears chase a man and a woman through a forest. The people escape by starting their car remotely using a smartwatch. "I just wanted to hug him," one of the bears says after the people are gone. The other replies, "I was gonna eat him." Hyundai ran a paid promotion for the ad that helped it draw 33 million total online views before kickoff, the most of any advertiser, according to the audience measurement company iSpot.tv.

In perhaps the most visually jarring commercial, for Mountain Dew Kickstart, a creature the brand calls a "puppymonkeybaby" — diaper-clad baby bottom, monkey torso, dog head — shakes a rattle, gyrates and rhythmically chants before handing out beverages. Yes, the creature licks a face or two.

"The best Super Bowl pieces — what they have in common is that they're all incredibly different," said David Lubars, chief creative officer of BBDO Worldwide. "In fact, the best ones don't travel on paved paths; they go into uncharted country."

A Doritos commercial showing a father eating Doritos while his wife gets an ultrasound sparked lots of chatter on social media (let's just say the fetus has a hankering for chips). The ad accounted for 3.5 percent of online activity and 100,000 social posts on game day and finished with about 12 million online views overall, according to iSpot.tv.

Those hoping for celebrity sightings were certainly not disappointed — some 40 stars appeared in commercials during the game. T-Mobile, for instance, got chuckles with its commercial featuring the hip-hop star Drake, who receives earnest instructions on how to improve his hit, "Hotline Bling." "When you say 'Call me on my cellphone,' " one person suggests, "just add: 'Device eligible for upgrade after 24 months.' "

A spot for Kia starred the actor Christopher Walken, while one for Bud Light featured Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, Michael Peña and Paul Rudd.Snickers ran an ad — a riff on the classic scene in "The Seven Year Itch" when a gust of air from a subway grate makes Marilyn Monroe's dress flutter up — featuring Eugene Levy and Willem Dafoe. Skittles went withAerosmith's Steven Tyler. An ad for Avocados From Mexico, which drew kudos from industry experts before the game, featured Scott Baio, the actor perhaps best known for his role as Chachi Arcola in the TV show "Happy Days."

Audi ran an ad that featured David Bowie's "Starman." Conversations about pairing the song with the commercial were already underway before Mr. Bowie died, a spokeswoman said in an email on Sunday night. Worldwide.

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Several advertisers took on more serious topics, using their time to offer socially conscious messages rather than directly promote products. Theadvocacy group No More, which works to combat sexual assault and domestic violence, returned to the Super Bowl with a spot that showed a text message exchange between friends hinting at possible signs of domestic violence. As it did last year, the National Football League donated 30 seconds of airtime for the ad.

Colgate, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser, had a 30-second spot intended to encourage people to save water by turning off the faucet when they brush their teeth. Another Budweiser ad featuring the actress Helen Mirren urged people not to drive drunk. "Don't be a pillock," she says, using a British insult. The spot was Budweiser's first anti-drunken-driving spot during the Super Bowl since 2005.

"There's still a very strong theme — with a little bit of a twist this year — of purpose, mission ideas, whatever you want to call it," said Jim Stengel, a business consultant who previously worked as chief marketing officer at Procter & Gamble. "I think brands and commercials that are embracing this idea of a higher purpose and a higher idea are getting smarter about it."

Even as advertising dollars shift online, commercial time during live events like the Super Bowl still commands a steep price. Many advertisers release online teasers and other promotions in the weeks before the game in an effort to get the most out of the money they spend.

"The value of the game itself is not just that 30-second spot anymore," said Jeremy Carey, managing director at Omnicom's Optimum Sports media and marketing agency.

Of course, Super Bowl ads also invite scrutiny, particularly when viewers can watch many online in the days before the big game. The financial services start-up SoFi, a first-time advertiser, received negative feedbackon its ad, which identified people as "great" or not great and ended with the line, "Find out if you're great at SoFi.com; you're probably not." SoFi removed the last part, evidently deciding that telling potential consumers they were not great was a bad idea.

"We want Brandon, our great member, to be the ad's focus," a spokesman wrote in an email, referring to one person in the ad. "Anything that takes away from him just seemed like a distraction."

Last year, Nationwide insurance ran an ad with a boy talking about the things he would never be able to do, like ride a bike or get "cooties," because he had died from a preventable accident. The ad was intended to draw attention to a program about making homes safer but was widely criticized for being too morbid.

There was also a heavy dose of ick during the game. An ad called "Envy," about opioid-induced constipation, featured a man watching a dog making a bowel movement and considering a sign for prune juice. Another ad was for a drug to treat irritable bowel syndrome. Jublia, a treatment for toenail fungus, also ran an ad.

Some advertisers decided this year that a TV appearance during the Super Bowl was not worth it. GoDaddy, a longtime Super Bowl advertiser, instead chose to place targeted online ads and run a 30-second commercial during the live stream of the game on CBSSports.com. Another advertiser, Unilever's Dove Men + Care, opted this year to run video ads on Twitter and on ESPN's N.F.L. page.

"I think the real thing is having the people who need to see your messages see them," said Mr. Lubars of BBDO Worldwide.