Why pop culture throwbacks were such a big theme in the Super Bowl commercials

Key Points
  • Many of the Super Bowl commercials were blasts from the past for viewers, with spots calling back to everything from "The Shining" to "Groundhog Day" to "Rocky."
  • According to Ace Metrix, a firm that measures ad creative effectiveness based on viewer reaction to video ads, the most effective 2020 ads were Hyundai's "Smaht Pahk," WeatherTech's "Lucky Dog," Doritos' "The Cool Ranch," Microsoft's "Be The One" and Reese's "Rock."
  • Political ads and outer space were other themes in this year's ads.
Fiat Chrysler is recreating the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day" with Bill Murray for a Super Bowl ad for the Jeep Gladiator pickup.
Fiat Chrysler

What's old was new again in Sunday night's Super Bowl ads.

Many of the commercials were blasts from the past for viewers, with spots calling back to everything from "The Shining" to "Groundhog Day" to "Rocky." Commercials had to toe the line of being funny for someone who had never seen a movie from the '80s, whether that meant bringing in a wider cast of stars or letting the humor transcend the reference.

That mass appeal is a huge task for Super Bowl advertisers who are typically going for a very different strategy, said Tim Calkins, a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

"You have to appeal to such a wide group," he said. "Most advertising runs in very targeted settings. You only really need to resonate with a certain group, and that group probably knows the characters and the references and jokes. The Super Bowl is different. [There are] so many people watching it with such scrutiny."

Though some spots, such as Google's "Loretta" and New York Life's "Agape," were more heartfelt, celebrities and pop culture played a huge role in the evening's splashiest ads.

"Culture is having a moment," said Liz Taylor, the global chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett and North American creative lead for Publicis Communications. She said advertisers could choose either to tap into the heaviness that exists in the world right now or take a lighter tack. "I kind of like that people are going for light humor and entertainment ... we have to entertain, and we're still selling things at the end of the day."

According to Ace Metrix, a firm that measures ad creative effectiveness based on viewer reaction to video ads, the most effective 2020 ads were Hyundai's "Smaht Pahk," WeatherTech's "Lucky Dog," Doritos' "The Cool Ranch," Microsoft's "Be The One" and Reese's "Rock."

Ace Metrix CEO Peter Daboll said when the firm started measuring the ads in 2009, over 85% of Super Bowl ads were funny, but that dropped over the years to below 50%, with heavier messages and those with more of a social agenda. "Now, we're seeing, I think, people fatigued with that. [Advertisers are] coming back with more lightweight [spots], more humor."

Every year, the question comes up again: Are Super Bowl ads really worth it for brands? For Pepsi, at least, the answer is yes. The marketer ran six ads across its brand in the Super Bowl this year, sponsored the halftime show and had a marketing presence in other parts of the game.

"We see every year that it pays back for us, because it's not just those 30 seconds," said Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer for PepsiCo Beverage North America. He said the lead-up and the conversations during and after the game pay off.


A slew of the Super Bowl spots leaned heavily on the nostalgic.

Avocados From Mexico's infomercial-themed spot starred 80's movie sensation Molly Ringwald. Cheetos' ad "Can't Touch This" borrowed a line from MC Hammer's 1989 hit "U Can't Touch This." Doritos' spot "The Cool Ranch" put Western movie legend Sam Elliott opposite Lil Nas X. Sylvester Stallone called back to his "Rocky" roots in Facebook's ad. Bill Murray reprised his role as Phil Connors in the "Groundhog Day" spot for Jeep. Mountain Dew's "As Good as the Original" starred Bryan Cranston and Tracee Ellis Ross in a reimagining of "The Shining." And Pepsi's spot for Zero Sugar featured Missy Elliott and H.E.R. performing a rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black."

Those kinds of references are a way to cater to a wide swath of audiences across generational lines. The trick is making sure it's funny whether or not the viewer has heard a song, knows a face or has seen a movie.

"Ideally with these references, you want the spot to work if they understand it and if they don't," Calkins said. "The MC Hammer spot is funny and cute and charming and it works whether you know MC Hammer or you don't."

For Mountain Dew's ad, that meant making sure the reference made sense even for younger viewers who haven't seen "The Shining."

Pepsi's Lyons said research showed that 60% of the population older than age 12 has seen "The Shining" but more than 90% are familiar with the scene of Jack Nicholson breaking down a door with an axe and poking his face through. That's because it's become such an iconic moment in pop culture. It has appeared everywhere, from popular GIFs to "The Simpsons."

"You don't have to have seen it," Lyons said. "The Mountain Dew ad tests exactly the same if you've seen 'The Shining' or if you haven't seen 'The Shining.'"


Political messages didn't take up much airtime during the Super Bowl but were a novel addition to this year's lineup. Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg ran a spot focused on gun control, a key issue for him. President Donald Trump ran two 30-second commercials during the game.

"The political battle is all-new this year," Calkins said. "That's something we've never seen in the Super Bowl."

Daboll said in an interview last week before the game that despite the big audience, it was unlikely to make much of a difference for either candidate.

"Political ads tend to not care about the viewer, they tend to care about pushing the message out," he said. "They wind up not changing very many minds ... That's a lot of money to burn in a message that is going to be half-heartedly received."

Vann Graves, executive director at VCU Brandcenter, said after the game the spots felt out of place.

"Personally, I feel like the Super Bowl is the one place where Americans come together to watch a story unfold, it doesn't matter age, race, religion, political affiliation, we're all coming together to watch this game," he said. So when the political ads came on, "It steals you from that moment of unity."


The ad lineup this year included a number of female-led commercials, and what GLAAD said was a "record number" of LGBTQ-inclusive Super Bowl ads, with stars including Jonathan Van Ness in a spot for Pop-Tarts. Drag queens made their first-ever Super Bowl appearance when Kim Chi and Miz Cracker appeared in Sabra's spot. The halftime show featured Jennifer Lopez and Shakira in the first time two Latina artists shared the Super Bowl stage.

The Super Bowl ads featuring women included one from Microsoft focusing on San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers, who on Sunday became the first woman to coach in the big game. Olay's humorous "Make Space for Women" spot made fun of tropes around "space for women" and also raised funds for Girls Who Code. SodaStream's spot guest-starred Alyssa Carson, an 18-year-old astrobiology student training to be part of the first crewed mission to Mars.

New research from Google and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found male characters receive about 2.5 times more speaking time than female characters in Super Bowl ads, however, and are twice as likely to be portrayed as leaders, based on a study covering ads from 2015 to 2019. Male characters also received 1.5 times the screen time.


Space was another theme for some of the spots.

In addition to the SodaStream and Olay ads featuring women, Walmart and Turkish Airlines also focused on space. Walmart's ad featured fictional space-themed characters doing curbside pick-up at the retailer, and Turkish Airlines' commercial kicked off with the line, "In 1969, humanity landed on the moon. Yet today, billions haven't stepped abroad."

That could be because several recent movies and shows have been space-focused, including "Star Trek: Picard," "The Mandalorian" and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." It could also just be neutral ground for advertisers, Adweek surmised last week.

Here were the most talked about commercials from the Super Bowl