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Breaking a trend, Super Bowl ad messaging was mostly light


February 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by Purdue University.


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Abandoning a prevalent theme from the last few Super Bowls, Sunday’s television advertisements mostly avoided messaging about social responsibility.

There were a few exceptions, where commercials referencing women’s empowerment (tennis star Serena Williams’ Bumble ad was made by an all-female crew, and a Toyota ad focused on Toni Harris’ dream of becoming the first woman to play in the NFL), the importance of a free press (the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” ad narrated by Tom Hanks), and environmental awareness (Budweiser’s ad claiming to brew its beer with wind power) explored weightier matters.

And there were several touching commercials like Google’s spot about its language translation app (“The most translated words in the world are ‘How are you?’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘I love you’”) and Microsoft’s “We All Win” commercial about disabled children playing video games.

But Super Bowl 53 advertisers did not seem to prioritize messages about social change, as Nike did in recent months with an ad that features former NFL star Colin Kaepernick and Gillette did with a widely discussed viral video that decries toxic masculinity.

“For the most part, advertisers stayed away from that last night,” said Josh Boyd, an associate professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. “There were some pretty light, not necessarily social-change messages, but the Microsoft ad with children with disabilities that were able to play together, that was a really heartwarming ad. I’m not sure it was making much of a social commentary, but it wasn’t just going with humor, it wasn’t just going with big special effects or celebrities like a lot of the ads went with last night.”

Even the ads that suggested change could be a good thing did so with a light touch. Boyd, who specializes in corporate rhetoric and public relations, cited Stella Artois’ “Change up the Usual” commercial where actors Jeff Bridges and Sarah Jessica Parker revisited their famous characters from “The Big Lebowski” and “Sex and the City” as an example.

“The people I was watching the Super Bowl with were laughing at the end, so I’m not sure they even heard this line, but the line at the end was something like, ‘A little change can be good.’ That could be read as some sort of very non-aggressive, social responsibility sort of claim,” Boyd said. “But there wasn’t a border wall appearance. There wasn’t a Colin Kaepernick kind of ad. There was certainly a diverse group of actors in the ads, but I didn’t notice an overt nod to taking a knee or anything like that.”

That said, several ads aired Sunday night that Boyd found notable, either for their innovative approach or memorable messaging. For instance, HBO and Bud Light partnered on perhaps the most surprising ad of the night, where what at first appeared to be another in Bud’s series of silly medieval beer spots turned into a promotion of the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” It included the death of one of the Bud Light commercial series’ characters and appearances by a fire-spewing dragon from the TV series.

“A lot of the ads had posted videos online ahead of time and this was one that at least I was not aware of until things went sideways in the ad,” Boyd said. “It was pretty dramatic. As people were watching it, I think it had a big payoff.

“I think it’s interesting that Bud Light was willing to sacrifice one of their characters, essentially, in the service of another advertiser, another company,” Boyd added. “I don’t think that’s a really common thing, but Budweiser is facing decreasing market share like a lot of standard older corporations, so I think they were willing to do something to shake things up.”

Among the evening’s other notable ads according to Boyd:

Walmart’s spot that featured a number of famous fictional vehicles – including Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine, KITT from “Knight Rider,” Ecto-1 from “Ghostbusters,” and the flying DeLorean from “Back to the Future” – all traveling to the store to utilize the store’s pickup service.

“I don’t think of Walmart as super creative. They’re pretty much, ‘Come here because we’re cheap,’” Boyd said. “But in that case, they showed some creativity that, at least in the group I watched the Super Bowl with, they were surprised to see and engaged by it. Kind of like the Stella ad or the “Game of Thrones” ad, it seemed to really draw people’s attention to the screen if they had started to converse.”

Hulu’s commercial promoting the third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“The people who are excited about ‘Toy Story 4’ or who are looking forward to the next ‘Avengers’ movie, they were engaged by those movie ads, but there wasn’t anything revolutionary about them,” Boyd said. “The only exception to that was ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ ad that sort of hijacked the Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ political ad from 1984 and turned it into something that was leading into ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ And so that was another one that started out as one thing and ended up as something that was quite different.”

* Amazon’s “Not Everything Makes the Cut” ad featuring Harrison Ford – only 60 seconds of which aired on TV compared to the full, 90-second version that is available online. Boyd found the messaging in the shorter version confusing, which exemplifies a contextual hurdle that advertisers face when editing down longer spots.

“It seemed a little bit random with that cut-down,” Boyd said. “So the whole idea of how much time do you need when time is so expensive for an ad, I think it’s a challenging one sometimes for advertisers to find an answer for.”

It’s certainly a challenge, but the payoff can be huge when a Super Bowl ad resonates. Even with viewership dipping to a 10-year low for the Super Bowl, it still pulled in around 100 million viewers. In an era where TV networks are bleeding viewership, an audience that large – especially one that actively watches the commercials – is immensely valuable.

“It is so far-and-away the most-watched program of the year in America every year that even if its numbers decline, it still gets two or three times more viewers than the next-closest thing,” Boyd said. “I think that’s just hard for advertisers to pass up because with audiences so fragmented, so many different delivery methods, so many people watching Netflix and Hulu and things that have no commercials – or at least it’s easy to skip the commercials – that a time where people are actually paying attention and commercials are part of the story.

“They’re paying attention to them, it’s harder for them to skip, they’re in social settings where they’re not just going to watch them, they’re going to engage and talk about them with other people.”