Madison Avenue took to the Super Bowl in an attempt to knit together a great divide.
A bevy of free-spending marketers put down big bucks Sunday night to emphasize something they think already makes America great: unity and diversity. After more than a year of divisive rhetoric from a tumultuous presidential campaign, the Super Bowl commercials – valued at more than $5 million for 30 seconds of time – played up multicultural consumers, acceptance of different backgrounds and recognition of the world as a collection of people with different philosophies and values who need to learn to get along.
“It’s kind of a very unusual place to be in, when giant global corporations are becoming the moral compass for our society,” said Ari Halper, the chief creative officer at the New York office of FCB, a big ad agency owned by Interpublic Group, in an interview. “If you look back through history, whether it was during Vietnam and Nixon or after the dot-com bubble burst or after the recent housing crisis, advertising responds in kind and plays to the audience and the tenor of our times.”
The ads accompanied an amazing game, and helped fuel an historic march by the New England Patriots. Led by quarterback Tom Brady, the team overcame a 25-point deficit and triumphed over the Atlanta Falcons 34 to 28 – after entering the first overtime session in the history of the Super Bowl.
Google kicked off the ad stream with a commercial for Google Home that contained a rainbow flag, and had one character ask “How do you say ‘Nice to meet you’ in Spanish?” Airbnb showed the faces of people from a range of backgrounds and told viewers, “We all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”
Sponsors big and small took up the themes. Freshman Super Bowl sponsor 84 Lumber ran an ad that showed a Spanish-speaking mother and daughter on a harrowing journey, then directed viewers to a web video that depicted them stepping through a door in a giant wall while the girl holds a handmade American flag. Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of the event’s most durable supporters, ran a minute-long commercial in which an immigrant is first told “You don’t look like you’re from around here,” but then is revealed to be Adolphus Busch, one of the co-founders of the company that brews Budweiser, Bud Light and more.
“The big through-line is diversity. It’s palpable,” said Rob Schwartz, chief executive of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, in an interview.
Others also played up noble ideas. Honda ran a clever ad showing yearbook photos of celebrities ranging from Magic Johnson to Stan Lee to Tina Fey. PepsiCo ran an ad for its new Lifewtr told viewers that “Art makes life #moreinspired.” Audi ran a spot talking about its commitment to gender pay equity. Coca-Cola sparked the theme with an ad that ran in the pre-game – a repeat of a 2014 Super Bowl commercial featuring children singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages, as well as what is believed to be the first appearance of a same-sex couple in the gridiron championship.
Even the National Football League tackled the topic. “We may have our differences, but recognize there’s more that unites us,” read one line in a commercial for the sports league that ran in the second half.
Indeed, advertisers have sounded this note many times. General Mills’ Cheerios has run ads about an interracial family, and Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer was once featured in a commercial featuring the same, with a Caucasian father who has lost part of his arm to cancer.
The appearance of the ads in the Super Bowl serve only to emphasize that American corporations see revenue streams in consumers hailing from many different backgrounds. They are also conscious of the rise of millennial consumers who hold fewer prejudices when it comes to ethnicity and sexual orientation.
In the current climate, however, the ads may have more resonance. President Trump’s comments about Latinos, African-Americans and women generated controversy during the 2016 election and his administration’s efforts to set a travel ban on seven countries with dominant Muslim populations has done the same. “We are at a time in which there is a lot of sociopolitical angst going on,” said Matthew Quint, director for the Center of Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. “If you are an organization that fits into that discussion, it’s going to draw more attention this year – more so than in years past.”
Not all of the high-minded ads won favor. FCB’s Halper felt the Audi spot was “a little more pandering than some of the other stuff,” and failed to connect the importance of gender pay equity to Audi’s cars.
This particular Super Bowl was one of the quirkiest for advertisers, because it included an extra ad break in the overtime session. Hulu, the streaming-video service which is part-owned by 21st Century Fox, Proactive and Sprint aired spots in front of an audience in what was probably the game’s most engaging moment.
Of course, some of the advertisers held true to more typical ideas, like celebrities and humor. Procter & Gamble turned the heads of ad-agency executives with ads for Febreze that contained an ode to a halftime bathroom break, and a clever spot for Tide that made viewers believe for a few seconds that they were watching Terry Bradshaw on the Fox Sports Super Bowl broadcast set. Honda’s use of celebrities also proved winning, said Schwartz, the ad executive. One freshman sponsor, It’s A 1o Haircare, ran a spot that made fun of President Trump’s hair. A different ad from Anheuser revived the ghost of popular beer mascot Spuds McKenzie.
Other spots hit a sour note. Sprint ran a commercial showing a father pretending to kill himself in order to cancel his Verizon calling plan. An ad from T-Mobile showed a couple of Verizon customers engaging in bondage, evidence they liked being punished. But the commercials failed to make a connection with elements that would get people to buy Sprint or T-Mobile. Mars’ Snickers took a big swing by airing a live commercial in the third quarter, but its marketing point and storyline – actor Adam Driver read the score to the game, prompting the Western-themed set to fall apart – were unclear.
A much-anticipated ad featuring the first appearance of venerable ad mascot Mr. Clean also raised eyebrows. In the commercial, Mr. Clean is seen as a virile Lothario, and swings his animated hips in a come-hither way while cleaning. “It had the opposite effect for me,” said Halper, the FCB agency executive. “It made me feel dirty. ”