super bowl ads reviving decades-old movie characters

It’s now officially a thing

This weekend marks the only universally-observed holiday in the United States. That’s right, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, that term referring to the entire five day cycle of press events, public workouts and other happenings culminating in an actual honest-to-blog football game between two teams that aren’t the Chicago Bears.

The Super Bowl, because of its ability to draw massive audiences – last year it drew 91.6 million viewers even in the weird pandemic year – is an equally massive advertising event. Indeed we’re at least a good two decades past the point where “I watch the commercials and use the game as a bathroom break” was a legitimate joke.

The game’s broadcast has always had its fair share of movie commercials, sometimes just a handful, other times as many as a dozen, though that’s been somewhat disrupted by streaming fragmentation and some studios deciding the expense (this year the top rate was reported to be $6.5m for a 30-second spot) wasn’t worth it.

Over the last couple years there’s been a secondary trend that seeks to tap into celebrity star power, always a big factor in many commercials, and tie that name recognition into nostalgia for some classic movie characters. Specifically, a number of brands have cast well-known actors as characters they’ve played in older films.

what’s new in ‘22

This year General Motors brought Mike Myers, Rob Lowe, Seth Green and Mindy Sterling together to once again play Dr. Evil, Number 2, Scott Evil and Frau Farbissina in a commercial touting the carmaker’s electric vehicles.

Also coming Sunday, Jim Carrey is back as Ernie “Chip” Douglas, his character from The Cable Guy, in a commercial for Verizon.

[disclosure: Verizon is working with my employer GoNoodle on an upcoming campaign, but I have not been involved in content creation. I’m not criticizing Verizon here.

Of the two, the Verizon spot is the most surprising for a few reasons:

First, The Cable Guy did pretty well but because Carrey’s star was still ascendant in 1996 it was seen as a disappointment and isn’t a movie that’s referred to frequently.

Second, it’s a *dark* comedy, not the lighthearted mainstream fare that Austin Powers is.

Third, it only serves to remind me that Medieval Times *still* hasn’t run a campaign centered around the serving wench played by Janeane Garofalo. That’s the only brand marketing extension of this movie that was warranted, but we’re still waiting.

the latest in a trend

These commercials aren’t the first time classic movie characters have been brought out of storage for a big Super Bowl campaign.

Bill Murray reprised his Groundhog Day role for Jeep in 2020.

Gary Cole drove fast as Reese Bobby from Talladega Nights for Dodge in 2021.

Matthew Broderick played a very Ferris Bueller-esque version of himself for Honda all the way back in 2012.

It’s not exactly in the same genre, but we’ll also count 2017’s Squarespace ad with John Malkovich because it references Being John Malkovich and is appropriately meta.


The simplest answer to what’s behind a trend that seems to be picking up speed is that these characters represent established IP that is easily recognizable by significant portions of the audience. They make for great moments of buzz and conversation, especially when the character and/or actor is truly iconic or, in the case of Murray, someone who has never done ads before and has a well-known eccentric streak.

So the purpose of these commercials is to bring some star power and attract headlines, all of which is meant to contribute to the success of the spot, though how “success” is defined has been fluid over the years. In some cases it’s social media buzz. In others it’s ranking on the USA Today AdMeter. Sometimes it’s actually sales or other actual consumer interest.

Whatever the case, it doesn’t seem like this is slowing down. If anything, given the increased frequency of true legacy sequels coming 20 or more years after the original movies, it’s likely to become more common as audiences become accustomed to seeing much older versions of the characters they enjoyed decades earlier.

With Movies Paused, Super Bowl Ads In Question

Big Game, But What Movies Will Be Advertised?

Here’s how Jason Lynch opens his Adweek article on where CBS is in its attempts to sell commercial time during next year’s Super Bowl:

As the NFL regular season nears its halfway point, the clock is ticking for marketers to decide whether they want to be a part of Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to air Feb. 7 on CBS.

The clock is indeed ticking. Surely some movie studios are considering whether or not to participate and air spots for their upcoming films during the broadcast. But with the Hollywood release calendar constantly in flux – including Disney’s recent removal of Free Guy and Death on the Nile from this December – and coronavirus cases hitting new highs every day, it’s nearly impossible to even guess what movies might make the cut. Heck, it’s even legitimate to ask if the game itself will happen as scheduled.

Of course that won’t stop me from engaging in a little largely unfounded speculation, broken down by studio below.

Disney et al

The King’s Man: This one has been moved around quite a bit by the studio so far, originally scheduled for November, 2019 but is now planned for February 15, 2021. If, at the end of January, that date is still locked then Disney may hope to get a bit of last-minute awareness and attention with a commercial during the game.

Raya and the Last Dragon: The game being a month out from Raya’s current release date means a spot would be hitting right as the marketing campaign was ramping up in earnest.

Black Widow: Of all of Disney’s releases in the first half of 2021 this one seems the most likely, assuming that the current 5/7/21 date holds. The game would provide a big platform for Marvel Studios to essentially relaunch the MCU, which has now been on hold since the middle of 2019.

Cruella: Disney has only stumbled once or twice with its live action remakes/adaptations in recent years, and it’s probably hoping the charm of Emma Stone in the title role makes this one a success. Those titles seem to appeal to all age groups and a Super Bowl spot would reach a broad range of demographics.


Tomb Raider 2: The first movie wasn’t a massive blockbuster, but Paramount is in desperate need of a franchise so it was good enough to warrant a sequel. Some of the first advertising for the original happened in the 2018 NFL playoffs, so the studio might hope to tap into the audience one more time.

A Quiet Place 2: Similarly, the 2018 Super Bowl was the launching pad for TV advertising for the original movie, spots that instantly generated massive amounts of buzz for what everyone agreed looked like an intriguing concept and story.

Warner Bros.

Tom and Jerry: Even if movie theaters are still closed, it’s at least a somewhat safe bet WB keeps this on its 3/5/21 date, meaning Super Bowl spots could run that promote a Scoob!-like PVOD release.

Godzilla vs King Kong: This movie has been sporadically promoted since it was announced in late 2015, with several delays happening even before the pandemic. Assuming it’s actually happening, a commercial here would come three months before release, which isn’t unheard of for bigger titles.

In The Heights: Advertising a musical in the highest profile sporting event of the year might seem odd, but WB might hope that audiences are as enamored by musicals – especially those with a connection with Lin-Manuel Miranda – to give it a shot.


Morbius: This is just a reminder that Morbius is a movie that’s actually happening, so unless Sony decides to dump it somewhere it will likely want to promote it.

No Time To Die: This is the rare instance where the constant pushing of release dates may actually be advantageous, providing an opportunity to put commercials for it in front of a sizable audience.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife: As above, moving this to June means Sony could give this release a big platform. Such a platform might help it reach an audience that needs to be convinced to come back to the Ghostbusters franchise after the disappointing results of 2016’s Paul Feig-directed installment.

Universal Pictures

F9: If the movie is still coming out in June, it will get a Super Bowl spot. End of story. It’s not even a question.

Amazon Studios

Without Remorse: The streaming companies have for years been talking about how they want and need an blockbuster action franchise of their own but so far that’s eluded them. After grabbing this from Paramount, Amazon could want to make a huge deal about a high-profile release with a big-name star debuting on Prime Video with a commercial during the game.

Still…That’s a Lot of Money

CBS is charging $5.5 million for a 30-second spot, according to Lynch. While the studios might not have to pay that full amount, advertising during the Super Bowl would still be a big and expensive bet to make.

To make that bet worth it, the theatrical picture would have to not only be more secure it would almost have to be a mortal lock. And considering they would be making that bet at least a month or so out from release it becomes even more uncertain. Even if a vaccine is available by February, its distribution won’t be anywhere near universal, meaning there could still be closures and other restrictions in place.

A more complete picture of what studios are placing that bet and what movies they’re choosing to advertise will hopefully be more clear in the coming months.

Are There Lessons To Learn From the 2020 Super Bowl Movie Spots?

Hollywood used broadcast TV’s biggest nights to sell its biggest films and provide a few surprises.

Ratings were up for this year’s Super Bowl compared to last year, offering professionals in the television industry hope that even in the era of cord-cutting there was still a mass audience that could be had. The numbers are actually a bit surprising given the two teams playing aren’t exactly (to my understanding) national powerhouses. But the game turned out to actually be a *game,* with drama throughout as two relatively evenly-matched competitors slugged it out through four quarters.

Before the game the narrative when it came to commercials for upcoming movies was that it might be a light year, with most every studio that wasn’t Universal or Disney sitting this year out because the ROI simply wasn’t there given the game’s $5+ million price tag for a 30-second spot.

In reality there were quite a few movies advertised to viewers. But the future was on display as well, with streaming services like Quibi, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+ all making their pitch to audiences, though only the latter two actually showed off their shows while the former pair used their commercials as brand-building platforms. Even a good number of spots for consumer goods brands used movie references or frameworks to get people’s attention.

Each of the movie commercials that aired during the game offers an interesting lesson in making an appeal to the modern moviegoer, a species that is increasingly rare as movie ticket sales drop from year to year.

Lesson #1: Use IP To Sell Something New

While the Super Bowl’s audience was growing, movie audiences were once again shunning a non-brand action film with a female lead, resulting in the disappointing results for The Rhythm Section. The Invisible Man, from Universal and Blumhouse, hopes to break that trend by merging the two ideas into something intriguing. While the title is clearly pulled from the classic horror film (and the book that inspired it), the story itself isn’t about the titular man but the woman he stalks once he gains his powers. As the commercial shows, the movie mixes horror jump scares with a woman being terrorized and gaslit until she finds out how to take him down.

Lesson #2: Throw Everything at the Audience

It can be hard to sell a movie inside of 30 seconds, as a feature film is often much more nuanced than such a short running time can accommodate. The difficulty factor increases substantially when the commercial in question is the first look people are being given at an upcoming release.

That’s the case with Minions: The Rise of Gru, the fourth film in the popular franchise. While it can be safe to assume most people know the general idea of what’s coming if you say “new Minions movie,” it’s still necessary to offer something unique so the reminder doesn’t just lead to them pulling out the DVD of the first movie. So Universal/Illumination’s spot has the narrator literally just naming attributes the film will include finally promising the full trailer is coming later in the week for what should be a more complete picture.

Lesson #3: Make It Personal

The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps going, even after the events of Avengers: Endgame. More importantly, there are some big stars who still have films on their contracts, hence this year’s upcoming Black Widow. While the marketing for the movie to date has offered insights into the story (if not the time period), for the Super Bowl spot Disney/Marvel Studios opted to make the appeal less about the super heroics Natasha Romanov will engage in and more about the family dynamics of the character, something that hasn’t been hinted at in previous films. That creates something slightly different than what’s been seen in the MCU recently.

The spot for Mulan uses the same angle, which says to me this is a Disney approach.

Lesson #4: Tease Tragedy

If you don’t tear up when Goose dies and his wife tells Maverick “He loved flying with you…” in Top Gun I’m not sure we can hang out. It’s an emotional moment that shows how the 1985 film isn’t an action movie by any measure but a drama of friendship, loss, legacy and responsibility. Top Gun: Maverick is hoping that scene still resonates (it does) by promising it serves as the crux of the sequel’s story. Not only is Goose’s son still holding a grudge against Maverick decades later, but it seems there’s another funeral that will play a major role. The marketing may be focusing on Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast doing a lot of their own flying, but the emotions will clearly be at the forefront as well.

Lesson #5: Make It An Ending

Hollywood loves selling endings to its long-running franchises for two reasons: 1) They’re probably only the beginning of a slight pause before the next reboot/remake, and 2) They make for great “OMG you have to see this immediately to be part of this cultural moment” events. While there’s no series that’s gone on longer than James Bond, No Time To Die does seem to be positioned as the endpoint for the Daniel Craig years. The star has talked about how this will likely be his last film, and the Super Bowl spot aired by MGM and Universal promises that a secret Bond is hiding “will be the death” of him while also declaring everything will change when the movie is released.

Lesson #6: Make It a Chase

A Quiet Place was a surprise hit a couple years ago with its unique premise. That it revealed much of the mystery behind what had happened and why the characters were acting like they were seemed problematic when it came to set up a sequel, so like the earlier marketing, the new commercial for A Quiet Place 2 doesn’t try to create a new mystery but instead makes it a chase film with human drama about believing the best of humanity at its core. Everything about the trailer is focused on keeping the characters moving and showing them running to or from one threat or another while also showing audiences they can expect more of the same from the first film.

Lesson #7: Embrace The Setting

Given the first marketing materials were met with such…strong…reactions to the look of the title character, the fact that the new commercial for Sonic The Hedgehog keeps Sonic himself hidden for the first half of its running time is super-interesting. Instead, Paramount opted to lean into the sports setting, with a handful of football players and other athletes praising an unknown person/entity’s speed and agility. It’s kind of snatching at low hanging fruit, but it also is a time-tested tactic to attempt to appear contextual to get the attention of those actually watching for the game.

Lesson #8: Use All of the Above

The commercial for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is to the lessons above what A Bridge Too Far is to The Caine/Hackman Theory: Proof that we’re on the right track. It:

  • Uses existing IP
  • Explains everything the movie will offer
  • Makes the story a personal one for the characters
  • Teases some tragedy that’s befallen someone
  • Establishes the chase as a central story component
  • Embraces the setting as the characters acknowledge the timing of the commercial

All that’s missing is a promise this is an ending, otherwise it’s a fitting example of everything shown above.