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Super Bowl or Soapbox? Big Game Advertisers Risk All by Trading Silly for Serious

When viewers tune in to the Super Bowl this Sunday, they will immediately expect to see commercials hyping soda and beer. They’re going to get something else.

Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch InBev, two marketers that sell millions of gallons of exactly those beverages, will open the 53rd edition of the gridiron classic with messages spotlighting changes in society. A 60-second Coke ad slated to air just before the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” will offer a plea for unity at a time when U.S. consumers have been polarized by politics at just that pre-game moment. Minutes later, Anheuser will use the first slot of in-game ad inventory – known in the industry as “1A” – to call attention not to Bud Light or Michelob, but to a new brand of hard seltzer, a reflection that American palettes have expanded to encompass more than cold suds during a Sunday sports event.

“Unity and togetherness is a really lovely message right before the game starts,” says Brynn Bardacke, Vice President, Content & Creative Excellence, Coca-Cola North America, in an interview.

And yet, it isn’t the sentiment millions of viewers have been trained to expect from this annual media extravaganza. Super Bowl commercials typically zero in on the funny bone or go for the gut by urging viewers to eat chips, nuts and other snacks. In the last few years, however, a good portion have taken on a higher purpose. They aim to sway hearts and minds with vignettes that prod consumers to consider how technology and social norms are in constant and unsettling flux.

With Super Bowl ads costing well over $5 million for 30 seconds of time – and even more for celebrities, special effects and social-media campaigns – Madison Avenue must ask itself whether to stick to tradition and entertain viewers or try to keep up with the times and spur them to think more seriously about the world around them. “That’s the answer everyone is looking for,” says Scott Campbell, general manager of integrated marketing at Colgate, which will run a spot featuring Luke Wilson in this year’s broadcast.

Since 2014, the experience of watching a Super Bowl has become akin to being immersed in a stream of consciousness conversation about profound changes in culture and socioeconomics. Recent Super Bowl ads have lectured viewers about diversity, gender pay equity, environmental sustainability, and immigration. Last year, Fiat Chrysler generated backlash by running a commercial featuring a sermon being read by Dr. Martin Luther King about what it means to serve society. Viewers thought the pastor’s voice ought to be considered sacred when it comes to commercial interests.

Madison Avenue has rushed into the social relevance game in a bid to impress younger consumers who are often moved when they hear about a vital cause or progressive goal. But these efforts have sometimes proven risky. Pepsi had to pull a commercial starring Kylie Jenner off the air in 2017 after consumers attacked its premise of having the celebrity attempt to bring protesters and police together with a can of of its flagship beverage. Procter & Gamble’s Gillette recently sparked debate with a commercial urging men to tamp down bullying and harassment. And Nike pressed a hot button last year by tapping former NFL player Colin Kaepernick for a campaign. The one-time San Francisco 49er is best known these days for sparking protest at NFL games about racial injustice.

Advertisers who tilt toward such issues in the Big Game could end up on the losing side of the evening, suggests one marketing-industry observer who has studied Super Bowl ads for years. “Once ads are perceived as crossing over into political territory, there is a large risk of alienating a substantial proportion of the target audience,” notes Charles Taylor, a professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business.

That won’t keep a bevy of advertisers from testing these waters on February 3, when CBS broadcasts Super Bowl LIII. Already, Audi has indicated it intends to spotlight electric vehicles. Kia is making a point of telling consumers it passed on using a celebrity and will instead fund a scholarship. Anheuser will use Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” to call attention to wind power. Procter & Gamble’s Olay wants to stand apart from the rest of the Super Bowl pitches by crafting a commercial aimed specifically at women. Its spot stars actress Sarah Michelle Gellar.

“The Super Bowl is one of the world’s biggest stages, and we were totally surprised to see that nearly 50% of fans are female, but only a quarter of the ads actually have women as their hero or main talent,” says Stephanie Robertson, North American brand director for Olay, in an interview. “We wanted to take on this disparity.”

Even so, advertisers realize they can’t dish out spinach all night to celebrants chowing down on chicken wings and seven-layer dip. Colgate first took to the Super Bowl ad roster in 2016 with a spot that urged viewers to save water, rather than pressing them to buy toothpaste. This year, the company has opted for a more traditional pitch. “There has been so much heaviness for so many years that I think light-hearted is the way to go this year,” says Campbell, the Colgate executive.

Madison Avenue will use at least a spoonful of sugar to make the serious messages go down easy. Even the early-game Coke and Anheuser ads have many of the expected trappings of a more typical Super Bowl ad. The Coke ad is animated and features a bevy of intriguing characters. Anheuser’s spot stars two mermaids and sports lots of humor.

Other marketers are bringing more of the same, tapping familiar elements like celebrities, jokes and nostalgia. A Pepsi spot enlists the aids of crooner Michael Buble. “I saw the copy,” says Buble in an interview about his decision to work with the beverage giant. ”I thought it was very funny. I thought it was very clever.” Doritos has tapped Chance the Rapper and the Backstreet Boys. Avocados from Mexico will boast Kristin Chenoweth.

Taking the high-minded approach, however, clearly has growing appeal. ”While I suspect most people watching the Super Bowl would prefer non-political ads” that spark laughter, “research by many marketing and branding companies show that millennials and Gen Zs are not turned off when the companies they support take a social stance,” says Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “Companies which include social messaging in their ads are more likely to connect with their consumers on an emotional level.”

Verizon entered the Super Bowl for the first time in seven years in 2018 with a message honoring rescue workers (who use the company’s telecom services to get the job done. Expect similar themes this year, says Diego Scotti, Verizon’s chief marketing officer. Super Bowl audiences will absorb a serious effort if it’s done properly, he says, and burnishes a unifying element rather than playing up something that divides audiences. “Creating controversy for the sake of creating controversy is not helpful for anybody,” he says. “We are in a moment when positivity is something that we all need.”

Whether silly or sentimental, Super Bowl ads are all really just trying to do the same thing, says Olay’s Robertson – stand apart from the other sixty-or-more high-concept pitches that fill the game. “Consumers want it all. I think they want to feel something. That may be funny. That may be inspiring,” she says. “They want to be rewarded by feeling something after they experience the ad.”

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