Humor and social messages proliferate at a tame Super Bowl
This year’s Super Bowl ads ran the gamut from tame humor to ... tame messages about social causes.
After a divisive year, advertisers during the Big Game worked overtime to win over audiences with messages that entertained and strove not to offend. The slapstick humor and sexual innuendo that used to be commonplace during Super Bowl ad breaks were nowhere in sight.
Instead, Budweiser, as always the largest advertiser during the game, eschewed the usual puppies and Clydesdales to showcase employees that send water to places in need. Verizon showed people thanking first responders who saved them. And Tide tried to make people laugh (and perhaps forget about its Tide Pod problem) with a humorous series of ads that starred “Stranger Things’” actor David Harbour.
“This is a year where people are feeling a little frayed around the edges because the divisive political environment on both sides,” said Kelly O’Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter. “They want to feel like there’s something still good in the world.”
While the Philadelphia Eagles bested the New England Patriots in a nailbiter on the field, advertisers were fighting a similar battle to win over the hearts and minds of viewers.
Tide took a novel approach with ads each quarter that poked fun at typical Super Bowl ads. Harbour popped up in familiar-looking ads that appear to be about different products: a car, an insurance company, jewelry and Old Spice (another P&G product). The twist? They’re really all Tide ads, because there are no stains on anyone’s clothing.
Tame comedy like the Tide ad was a theme throughout the night. In a year that saw the #MeToo movement shine a spotlight on sexual harassment, the vast majority of ads starred men but there weren’t any that focused on scantily-clad women or sexual innuendo, save for an awkwardly dancing – and fully dressed – woman in a Diet Coke ad.
An Amazon ad showcased different celebrities – including actress Rebel Wilson, actor Anthony Hopkins, singer Cardi B and chef Gordon Ramsay – filling in as the voice of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
M&M’s featured Danny DeVito as a human M&M. And Mountain Dew and Doritos staged an epic hip-hop lip-sync battle between actors Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage. The two lip-synced to Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, respectively.
An ad for Blacture, rapper Pras’ new media platform, was one of the few ads to make an overtly political statement. It showed a black man standing alone on stage with tape over his mouth and a blindfold on his eyes. “Blacture. Be celebrated. Not Tolerated,” text on the screen read. And T-Mobile’s ad showed babies and enlisted Kerry Washington for a voiceover that talked about equality.
“The [T-Mobile] message is terrific but all the way through, if you asked consumers who the ad is for, nobody would know,” said Kimberly Whitler, marketing professor at the University of Virginia.
That kind of attempt to connect brands to social causes was a big theme of the night. Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, said a fifth of all Super Bowl ads featured causes, compared with just 6 percent last year.
“There’s a lot of research that says millennials really like it when brands link themselves to causes,” said Taylor. “It’s just refreshing for a lot of people to see these unifying types of messages by the advertiser.”
However, advertisers can stumble in these efforts when the connection seems tenuous. There was some negative reaction when Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge Ram ad featured a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.