LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Budweiser capitalized on cuteness with the return of a puppy and Coca-Cola stood out with an anti-bullying message as many brands stirred emotions rather than going for laughs during the annual high-stakes battle of Super Bowl commercials.
Companies paid up to a record $4.5 million for 30 seconds during the championship game on Comcast Corp's NBC network seen by an estimated 100 million-plus viewers, the year's biggest television audience. The New England Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks.
Brands employed uplifting themes including the celebration of dads and tackled somber social issues in their bids to grab attention among more than 70 commercials.
"There has been an awful lot of stuff tugging at the heart strings," said John Maxham, chief creative officer of DDB Chicago. "I'm struck at how many brands have gone with a serious almost socially minded tone to their advertising."
Budweiser had a hit even before kickoff. The beer maker owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev reprised last year's winning combination of a puppy and his Clydesdale friends. This time, the horses help the lost puppy find his way home.
That ad was watched nearly 42 million times ahead of the game and topped rankings by iSpot, which tracks online views and social media chatter.
Coke won cheers from advertising experts for addressing digital hate speech, showing mean messages sent through texts or social media that were changed to positive missives once a bottle of Coke spilled into the wiring of servers.
The NFL ran a public service announcement that urged an end to domestic violence, a problem that tarnished the league's image during the season. The spot featured a woman calling the police but pretending to order a pizza so she wouldn't tip off her abuser.
Taking on serious issues during the Super Bowl can be tricky with viewers used to a celebratory atmosphere. Nationwide Insurance sparked a social media backlash with an ad that many called jarring.
The ad spotlighted a boy who could never grow up and ride a bike or get married because he died in an accident in a commercial meant to highlight preventable child injuries.
"Many people felt it was just the wrong time for a message like that," said Tim Calkins, marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, which runs an annual review of Super Bowl ads. "It was a very disturbing piece of advertising."
Adam Tucker, president of Ogilvy & Mather, the agency that created the commercial, said the ad was "intended to spark a conversation and create awareness around an important issue".
Web services company GoDaddy's commercial focused on a guy missing the game because he was working, the type of business owner GoDaddy serves. The company scrapped an earlier spot following an outcry from animal lovers who said it seemed to advocate puppy mills.
"They ended up running an ad that just didn't break through the clutter," Calkins said.
Going with comedy, Snickers scored by featuring Marcia Brady of "The Brady Bunch" TV series transformed into angry action movie star Danny Trejo, part of the company's "You're Not You When You're Hungry" campaign.
"It stood out," said Jay Russell, chief creative officer at advertising agency GSD&M. "It's simple and quick."
Unilever's Dove Men+Care was one of at least three companies to celebrate fatherhood, showing doting dads rushing to help an upset child or dancing at a daughter's wedding.
Brands also fought for attention on social media.
Southwest Airlines tweeted an offer of free Doritos for fliers who take a selfie in a middle seat on Monday or Tuesday, a nod to a Doritos TV ad set on an airplane. Kim Kardashian, who mocked herself in a T-Mobile TV ad during the game, urged Twitter users to visit a website to receive pictures of her.
McDonald's, which ran a crowd-pleasing TV ad in which people paid for their orders by showing love to others, set up a team in a war room to comment via Twitter on every commercial and encourage re-tweets to win related prizes.
"Lovin' Clydesdales & puppies & wolves, oh my, @Budweiser. RT to try & win a trip with your best bud, up to 500 miles," McDonald's wrote.
Editing by Sandra Maler and Miral Fahmy