6 DTC Super Bowl ads that prove TV’s not dead


You might think TV is dead.

You see people cutting the cord and making the switch to user-friendly streaming services. You witness your friends and family cling to their smartphones and iPads. It seems television has fallen out of style.

But then the Super Bowl comes around, and you are reminded of the sheer scale of the event. The behemoth that combines sporting and live performance still represent the largest live audience on the planet. Brands of all sizes compete to stand out amongst the sea of agency copywriting and video production.

Over 100 million prospective customers glued to the TV. A game that is designed for stoppages and timeouts. It’s the yearly gold rush of advertising.

If TV is dead, why are traditionally DTC companies spending millions of dollars on ads?

At the tail end of a global pandemic, the stakes are raised for direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies looking to gain an edge. We’ve seen economic crises, witnessed the fight for racial justice, and watched in awe as a capital succumbed to terror. With such a large audience tuned into the Super Bowl, campaigns of this scale can make or break an organization.

Launch a well-executed ad? Reap the rewards for generations to come. Apple forged an entire brand image with their “1984 Super Bowl ad.” A lot of their identity came from being the trendy version of a pc.

Launch a stinker? Well, have you heard of Just for Feet? Probably not. And that’s exactly my point. Their 1999 Super Bowl ad was racially insensitive and left them pointing fingers at their agency: Saatchi & Saatchi. The agency is still around. The brand? Not so much. 

I witnessed the best and the worst of DTC companies flexing their muscles during the Superbowl. From Reddit to Doordash, to Robinhood and Squarespace. I was watching the ads more than the pigskin.

Because even with all the forces opposing it, TV is still one of the most powerful channels for advertisers to reach their audience. Period. 

Here are seven direct-to-consumer ads that caught my eye. 

The good, the decent, and the ugly 

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University does a yearly ranking of all the super bowl ads each year. They use a tier list from A to F, assigning the ads into classes. According to Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, this year didn’t produce any “showstoppers,” per se. 

"Overall, this year’s Super Bowl featured safe ads with light humor. But, it was good to see some brands aim for more empowering messages. Still, we didn’t see any breakthroughs or ads that we’ll be talking about for years to come.”

It seems that brands were more willing to play it safe than shoot for the moon. Audiences are sensitive at the moment. They want to see positive feelings and hope. Going for a controversial approach and missing the target could be devastating for an already struggling organization.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get anything good. 

The Good

These DTC companies stood above the rest in terms of creation, theme, and identity. They all ranked in the A-tier of the Kellogg School Review. 

Reddit - 5 Second Spot

Redditors have been all the rage lately. Watching large market forces get overrun by the “little guy” has been nothing short of exhilarating and empowering. Reddit spent their entire marketing budget for the year on a 5-second spot.

They spent millions to tell us that powerful things happen when people rally around things they care about. It was a message that did not go unread. Agencies and audience members alike applauded the technology company. It was perfect timing and exactly on-brand for what you would expect from a trailblazer. Five seconds was all it took.

Indeed - The Rising

Millions have lost their job due to the pandemic as the economy slowly recovers. It’s no secret that Indeed has been helping people find jobs for a while now. But the timing and emotional theme of this ad hit the nail square on the head.

The images of hard-working parents and immigrants are combined with inspirational messages and quotes. What I think works the best is that everything they are saying is true. They do help people find jobs, and they do impact people’s lives. This commercial just summarized it perfectly.

The Decent

These companies didn’t miss the mark entirely, but they didn’t do enough to earn the highest level of grades. They scored between a B and C on the Kellogg Review.

Robinhood - We are all investors

The fault of this commercial was not in the delivery. It was well shot and presented a nice, concise story. This company shot itself in the foot before the commercial even aired. Robinhood notoriously restricted trading of GameStop and other highly-shorted stocks in the Reddit short squeeze frenzy.

One comment on Youtube said, “We are all investors, but only some of us are allowed to profit.” Hundreds of comments go on to say similar things. The audience saw right through the ad and ousted the company for manipulating the truth.

We aren’t all investors, and because Robinhood restricted the ability to trade certain things.

DoorDash - Daveed Diggs x Sesame Street 

This commercial suffers from the same fate as the Robinhood commercial. Doomed before it even began. This commercial is fun and light. It features Daveed Diggs, a co-star of Hamilton, and the Netflix show Snowpiercer. It brings together the worlds of sesame street and Door Dash into a colorful and lively performance.

But a commenter on YouTube brought them down to earth, “I feel like the $10 million + spent on this ad would be better spent paying drivers and restaurants a fair cut.”

The Ugly 

These ads missed the mark. They scored between a D and an F on the Kellogg Review. Direct to consumer companies are used to leveraging other channels of marketing. Many of them are still finding their niche in live TV ads.

Squarespace - Dolly Parton 5-9

The ingredients to this ad should make for a killer concoction. A custom Dolly Parton song combined with lively dance and bright colors? For heaven’s sake, the team behind “La La Land” did the choreography! But the commercial’s problem is apparent right from the jump. The message is hollow.

“Gonna change your life, do something that gives it meaning!”

The commercial implies that you should be working 9 to 5 and working your side hustle from 5 to 9. Like working two jobs while taking care of your children isn’t meaning enough, Dolly! The message is insensitive when many are struggling to find work, let alone another side hustle.

Draft Kings - 4th quarter prop bet

Cut and dry. Boring with outdated animations. This is the immediate feeling you get when watching this ad. Oh, another gambling site! Great. The commercial makes a valid attempt to involve the audience in the game. DraftKings invites people watching the game to “Make it Reign” by placing a prop bet for the fourth quarter.

The problem? The game was a blow out after the first quarter. By the time the fourth rolled around, everyone knew who was going to win the Super Bowl. Ouch. It didn’t help that the commercial felt like a web ad you’d see after visiting a site you weren’t supposed to.

Honorable/dishonorable mentions

These companies are not exactly DTC, but their ads are worth mentioning for both good and bad reasons.

Amazon - Alexa’s Body Ft. Michael B. Jordan

Michael B. Jordan should be cast as the next James Bond. He should be the next Superman and the host of Jeopardy. He is simply a walking representation of the perfection of the human form. A form that Amazon exploited to the max with their Superbowl spot “Alexa’s body.”

This commercial works in so many ways. First, Amazon chose to position a product that has thrived during the pandemic. They cast an A-list celebrity starring in a movie about robots to combine marketing efforts. With more people at home, it was easier to envision all the ways you would use the Alexa.

Although not technically a DTC brand, this commercial was just too damn funny to not include!

Uber Eats - Wayne's World & Cardi B's Shameless Manipulation

Again, another commercial with all the right ingredients. Wayne’s World stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey share the screen with chart-topper Cardi B. Famous people having fun on screen, it’s what everyone wanted, right?

“Uber Eats just spent $5.5 million-plus whatever it cost to get Cardi B, Mike, and Dana Carvey to tell us to ‘support local restaurants’ while putting local restaurants out of business by charging them 30% delivery fees.”

That’s Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments giving his reaction to the ad on Twitter. And he wasn’t alone. Many people saw through the message in the same way they did with the Squarespace ad. The best way to support local businesses is not through “a parasitic” app but to order from them directly.

Despite the hollow message, this ad had me laughing and basking in nostalgia.

TV is not dead, not yet.

We are used to seeing the GMs and Coca-Cola’s of the world on the largest advertising stage. This year, it was refreshing to see a fleet of direct-to-consumer companies joining the wave. Companies like Reddit dedicated their entire ad spend for the year on a 5-second ad. That alone should demonstrate the sheer power of a live audience.

Where else can companies get a live audience of large proportions? Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram. Live streaming has exploded across every social media. So while the resilience of TV points to its survival, it also points towards streaming as a way brands can access thousands of customers at once.

If brands keep spending millions, we won’t be cutting the cord on cable just yet.