Which Super Bowl advertiser got the worst return on its investment?

February 11, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

Which Super Bowl LV advertiser got the worst return on its hefty investment? The winner, or rather loser, is clear: Jeep.

As usual, America’s most-watched TV broadcast was quite possibly the most ad-dense broadcast: 57 minutes of commercials in the game itself, as distinct from pregame and postgame coverage, a new record, says the Kantar research firm. Once again, those ads were the most expensive on TV, costing an average of $5.6 million for a 30-second commercial, Kantar estimates, another record, though the CBS broadcast delivered the smallest Super Bowl audience since 2007.

Jeep’s commercial stood out from the crowd in a few ways. It was the longest at two minutes. It showed Bruce Springsteen driving across a flat, wintery Kansas landscape to a tiny chapel at the geographic center of the lower 48 states. His voice-over narration extols the value of being “in the middle”—“a hard place to get to lately,” he says, but “we need the middle.” At the end, the words “To the ReUnited States of America” appear across a map of the U.S.

What could be wrong with a highly produced, uplifting message urging Americans to come together?

As it turns out, plenty. After surveying Twitter and Instagram reactions to the Super Bowl ads, Adweek deemed “Middle” the “most divisive” of them all. Equal numbers loved it and hated it. After an extraordinarily bitter election, it seems quite a few people on both sides are still furious. They’re in no mood to meet in the middle; they want to defeat the enemy. Adweek reports that the Talkwalker brand analysis firm found net sentiment toward the Jeep brand to be –22% after the Super Bowl.

And then, on Wednesday, news emerged that Springsteen had been arrested for drunk driving in November. This is never good news about an ad spokesperson—especially if the advertiser makes cars. Jeep immediately pulled the “Middle” commercial from YouTube, where some of the other Super Bowl ads have been viewed almost a million times.

That’s what Jeep got for its investment, but how much did it invest? Jeep’s parent company, Stellantis, has not responded to a request for the numbers. The company presumably got a volume discount from CBS for buying two minutes, but the cost must have been in the double-digit millions. It’s impossible even to guess how much Springsteen got, but consider that until last Sunday, he had never endorsed a for-profit business in his career. Bob Dylan has done it (in 2014 for another Stellantis brand, Chrysler, during Super Bowl XLVIII), but not Springsteen. Variety reports that Stellantis chief marketing officer Olivier Francois had been pursuing him as a spokesman for a decade. Combine all those factors, and “Middle” may be one of the most expensive TV commercials ever. Maybe even the most expensive.

So let’s recap: Jeep spent a staggering sum on a TV commercial in the most ad-crowded Super Bowl ever—and the least-viewed in 14 years. The ad did the opposite of what it was supposed to do and then had to be removed because the coveted spokesman misbehaved. Unfortunately for Stellantis, “Middle” may merit a spot in the advertising hall of fame.

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