Toyota’s 2021 Super Bowl Commercial Shares an Inspiring Story in a Creative Way

Ali Cozzolino-Smith
4 min readJan 19, 2022

Whenever I think of a moving story told in a creative way, the 2021 Toyota Super Bowl commercial, “Upstream”, featuring Paralympic athlete Jessica Long, comes to mind. I watch the Super Bowl for the ads more so than the game. I cannot help it! I received my bachelor’s degree in advertising. Some advertisements are funny or entertaining, but are not necessarily remembered after the game ends. The commercials that make a lasting impression tell a story and inspire their audiences. I started swimming at a very young age. I had never heard of Jessica Long’s story. After seeing this commercial, I read several articles and stories about her swimming and Paralympic history, and missed the next ads and part of the game. Her story is so captivating.

Courtesy of Toyota’s YouTube Channel

This commercial has a very specific story to tell. It begins with the opening shot of Jessica Long actively floating in open water. Jessica puts on her goggles and begins to swim. She swims past a woman answering a call from an adoption agency that they have a baby girl ready to be adopted. She swims through a Russian orphanage and past all the cribs. While on the phone, the woman learns the baby was born with a rare condition and needs her legs amputated. This is the conflict of this story. Jessica continues swimming past a cross-section of a house, where a little girl uses crutches and prosthetic legs.

Courtesy of Toyota

The next scene depicts a slightly older image of the same girl in a locker room wearing a swimsuit, goggles and sitting proudly. The next portion of the commercial is from Jessica’s point of view, as she swims past her coach, her supporters, and a larger crowd cheering for her to get to the final scene. The final scene of the commercial is Jessica listening to her adoptive mother verbally accepting the adoption over the phone, saying, “It might not be easy, but it’ll be amazing.” She is essentially swimming “upstream” and seeing all the choices and memories that led to her being an incredible athlete. It depicts love, support, and strength.

The narration helps tell the story. The woman from the adoption agency is narrating the commercial. The scenes Jessica swims past connect with what the woman on the phone tells Jessica’s adoptive mother.

On the surface, the story is of an orphan born with a rare condition and will have many hardships to overcome. The way Toyota focuses this story on the athletes’ journey to success, not on the number of medals Jessica Long has won. Toyota is aligning themselves with hope and strength through this campaign. Toyota wants the audience to associate Jessica Long’s story with Toyota.

Courtesy of Toyota

The setting of this commercial is interesting. Jessica is in dark, open water, you assume she is swimming in a pool. The scenes she is swimming past she doesn’t necessarily enter. She swims past an orphanage, house, kitchen, and locker room. I believe the setting is within Jessica’s own mind. And we are seeing the “upstream” battle she faced to get to where she is today. The audience shifts from watching Jessica’s story unfold, and then through Jessica’s eyes as she swims past her coaches and supporters.

The character in this story is undoubtedly Jessica Long, as we watch her story unfold through snap shots of her journey. The audience sympathizes with the character more and more as the story progresses. We are rooting for her! It is something that makes her different, and something she had to learn to overcome. One of the most compelling techniques used in this commercial is sound. Watching this commercial without sound does not have the same effect as watching it with sound. When the narrator starts talking, the sound of water is calming, but as Jessica swims past the scenes, the sound of water is more rushed and is louder, as if she really is swimming upstream. There are cheers! And then the mother says that final line, “It might not be easy, but it’ll be amazing.” The lighting is also strategic. The water and surrounding scenes are dark, except for Jessica, she has a spotlight and glow upon her, cancelling out the dark.

If you have not already seen this inspiring commercial about an exceptional athlete’s story, I highly recommend you watch it. The official Toyota video is embedded within this medium article.


Toyota USA. (2021, February 3). 2021 Toyota Big Game Commercial: Jessica Long’s Story | Upstream [Video]. YouTube.

Toyota Shares Messages of Hope, Strength, and Social Responsibility in Big Game. (2021, February 3). Cision. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from