Why Super Bowl Ads Could Be Sad, Somber and Serious for Years to Come

Analysis: As more consumers turn to causes in a troubled world, issue-related advertising trumps celebrity cameos and humor

Bryan Cranston Super Bowl Commercial

Advertising surrounding the Super Bowl may have turned what is supposed to be the feel-good event of the year into the feel-bad one.

Marketers assaulted 114.4 million viewers Sunday night with messages about online bullying (Coca-Cola), gender stereotypes (Procter & Gamble’s Always) and obesity (Weight Watchers). Nissan tapped one of the saddest songs of the modern age – Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” – while the audience watched a 90-second story about a kid growing up lonely and disaffected as his father tended to other pursuits. The National Football League aired a public-service announcement centered on an unseen woman trying to get help from 911 without tipping off what was presumably an abusive spouse. One commercial from Nationwide was presented from the viewpoint of a child who was already dead.

And then Madison Avenue topped things off with a short ad about toe fungus and another one about God unleashing a new Ragnarök on humankind over something as trivial as a dead smartphone battery.

If Super Bowl ads are a reflection of the American conversation, then the United States seems sad, depressed and horribly, horribly scared. “The public generally prefers happy endings in their novels,” said Keith Quesenberry, a former creative director who is a lecturer at the Center for Leadership Education at Johns Hopkins University.

In the future, however, such things – once a central tenet of Super Bowl commercials – may be harder to find. Once a place for puppies and jokes that tickled the funny bone, TV’s biggest annual event is changing. Advertisers who once wanted to make people laugh are instead trying to make them think, and align their sodas, insurance policies and even Big Macs with causes and topics of interest that spur consumers to action.

Consumers have been proven to switch to products that support social causes, said Marina Puzakova, a marketing professor at Lehigh University, citing a 2001 study presented in the Intl. Journal of Advertising. Approximately 76% of consumers are more likely to switch to a brand that supports a social cause, she said, while 80% believe that companies need to engage in more societal marketing. “Overall, several brands took a path of showing to consumers that they are not silent bystanders but rather are greatly aware of societal problems and are eager to stand in the forefront to find solutions,” she said.

In doing so, they may be transforming the Super Bowl from a party into a pulpit. To be certain, some advertisers came to the gridiron classic in their usual clothes. Snickers did a parody of “The Brady Bunch.” Anheuser-Busch InBev warmed the heart with another take on the tale of the lost puppy who is saved by its team of sturdy Clydesdales. Rookie entrant Avocados of Mexico won applause for its presentation of a prehistoric football draft.

On the whole, however, the ads “were a little bit too preachy or a little bit too dark,” said Peter Daboll, chief executive of Ace Metrix, a company that measures the quality of video advertising. Even some of the celebrity cameos took a tilt to the dour: Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who appeared on behalf of Esurance, isn’t a character who inspires hope and happiness.

Ace Metrix found ads with a morbid tone failed to chart in the higher echelons of its annual ranking of the Super Bowl commercials that generated the most favorable responses. Another firm, Innerscope Research of Boston, discovered audiences last night were not necessarily moved by serious pitches. Innerscope, which gauges the emotional response to advertising, found 40 participants gathered in a lab Sunday evening were moved the least by the NFL’s anti-violence spot, Microsoft’s two tales of inspiring children, the “Always” spot and an ad for Jublia’s toenail fungus medicine.

“Advertising may be central to this extravaganza, but the event remains a platform for fun, friends, and sports passion – one that consumers don’t want to be interrupted by the seriousness of daily life,” said Dr. Carl Marci, chief science officer and founder of Innerscope.

One theory gaining more credence with advertisers and TV networks is that viewers want more of what they tuned in for – not less. So ads that support a fun sports event tend to fare better if they are in keeping with the programming that attracted the audience in the first place.

Part of the problem? The Super Bowl has been shedding some of its most reliable sponsors, people who had the art of making a decent Super Bowl commercial down to a science. Gone from the game in 2015 are one-time stalwarts like Audi of America, General Motors, Cars.com and Careerbuilder. Federal Express hasn’t been a participant since 2009. One regular who keeps coming back, GoDaddy, put a last-minute ad into the mix that failed to dazzle. Of 39 parent companies present in last year’s Super Bowl XLVIII on Fox, 22 did not return in 2015 – an attrition rate of 56%, according to Kantar Media. That’s the highest level since that found between 2004 and 2005.

In their place this year was a surfeit of newcomers: the fungal cream, a Web-services company that paid Jeff Bridges to show up and do absolutely nothing that linked his presence to their product, and a couple of makers of video games. Kantar counted 13 advertisers that accounted for 32% of the marketing roster – the highest level in years.

Outside of the bright lights of the Super Bowl, where a victory of some sort is certain, the world has become a place of less definition. Technology has disrupted millions of jobs. Many consumers don’t feel their wallets are keeping pace with the overall surge of the stock market. The threats of international conflict, global climate change and terrorism seem very real.

Even some ads from which people might have expected a festive air muted bright colors. Consider the case of Carnival Cruise Lines, which played a 1962 speech from John F. Kennedy in hopes of inspiring viewers to take to the sea. “They were not selling fun this time,” said Michael Levin, associate professor of marketing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

Perhaps Super Bowl XLIX will be remembered as the event in which Madison Avenue tried to recalibrate its tone. Gone are Budweiser’s crotch-biting dogs and Burger King’s Whopperettes. In their stead are marketers trying to appeal to the consumer’s more serious side. After the past few years, the silly part seems to be fading from view.