Apple Ad Legend Lee Clow Says It Was A Weak Year For Super Bowl Spots

The TBWA Worldwide chairman and global director talks judging the Super Clio, common Super Bowl ad mistakes, and more.

Apple Ad Legend Lee Clow Says It Was A Weak Year For Super Bowl Spots
Chairman and global director of TBWA Worldwide, Lee Clow [Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Airbnb]

Within the advertising industry, Lee Clow is a legend. In broader culture he’s perhaps best known as one of the primary minds behind the classic advertising and branding of Apple. Yesterday, Clow was part of a panel of judges that selected the ad industry’s award for the best Super Bowl ad of the year, the Super Clio. Who better to judge than the guy behind one of the most well-known Super Bowl ads of all-time, Apple’s “1984”?


Clow and the rest of the Super Clio judges named National Geographic’s “Bad Romance” as the big game’s best, specifically for its creative context–using a Lady Gaga song immediately after the artist’s halftime show–and simplicity. “It was pure and simple,” says Clow. “I didn’t even know about this show, and it actually worked as an ad and made me want to watch the entire series.”

But while he really liked the National Geographic spot, not a lot else on offer stuck out during this year’s big game.

“I thought it was a pretty weak year, even in the context of entertainment value. I thought there wasn’t as much charm, humor, creativity as usual,” he says. “I personally felt like trying to go to some of these political places, when we’ve maybe had all the politics we can handle week in and week out, was a mistake. And I’m not sure if the legitimacy, or the brands maybe had the right to even try to take on some of these conversations. I don’t think it was the strongest year, nothing really touched my heart or made me laugh a lot.”

When it comes to Super Bowl ad strategies, Clow says brands would be better served aiming high all year rather than putting so much emphasis into one game. “I’ve never considered a Super Bowl ad to have a higher threshold than any other ad,” he says. “I think the goal of doing great work is trying to make it some kind of breakthrough. Whether that’s being funny, passionate, smart, but it needs to be something that pushes the envelope. And I think that should be the goal for any advertising.”

In fact, it’s often the spectacle of the Super Bowl itself–and the 100 million or so eyeballs watching it–that distracts advertisers from their primary goal.

“The Super Bowl platform, by virtue of how competitive it’s become from an entertainment standpoint, maybe pushes you to actually make some of the mistakes that, as an ad person, I see in the Super Bowl,” says Clow. “That is, striving so hard for entertainment or surprise that it bears little resemblance to actual advertising, in terms of the service it does for the brand or the client. Some of them go to a stupid, outrageous place, many have dramatic filmmaking in mind but has a very tentative connection to the brand, so a lot of creative people get away with doing stuff that’s indulgent, as opposed to helping the brand that’s spending all that money on the spot.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.