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Storytelling

For Super Bowl LII Ads, Brands Chose Altruism

The Super Bowl game itself may have been a distillation of the modern—two forward-thinking teams setting offensive records in a close, hotly-contested affair. But the peripherals were mostly a throwback to our simpler, seemingly less politically-charged nineties or early aughts. Justin Timberlake played his hits and stayed in his corporate-friendly box during the Halftime Show, and the highly-anticipated advertisements featured mostly celebrity-led laughs and smiles.

That many brands and marketers decided to play it relatively safe and down the middle was expected. In these charged times, brands were largely keen to stay away from making any statements that could be seen as politically-motivated. But recent research from Sprout Social says that consumers want brands to take a stand on social issues. And while consumers are most receptive to these stances on social media (58%), they also like to see brands do so on television and radio (47%).

So aside from the standard humorous, A-list led spots, a theme seemed to emerge that tried to split the difference: altruism. Not every brand stayed completely away from “issues”; instead, these brands looked to find something widely agreeable and, for lack of a better term, safe to stake their claim to. As with all Super Bowl ads, this subsection saw its range of subjective hits and misses.

What’s been perceived by many as one of the biggest misses was Dodge RAM Trucks and its spot featuring voiceover from Martin Luther King, Jr. An apparent theme of working hard and coming together building up to the ad’s tag of “Built to Serve” didn’t seem to have a clear connection to Dr. King’s words, and instead many saw it as an empty attempt at some unspecified positivity. (Perhaps worst off, pointed out here, is that the ad used words from a speech in which Dr. King actually spoke about not spending a lot of money on an automobile.) The ad came across as extra tone-deaf given its placement on an event put on by a league that has drawn the ire of many (including the President) for some black players’ public protests of police brutality and racial inequality. Here’s an example where taking a bold stance may have paid off—once can imagine the ad might have been effective had it led to a broader campaign or direct call for support towards racial equality.

This sort of “general goodness” approach can be well-done, however, and was so in Coca-Cola’s “The Wonder of Us” spot. The ad celebrated the diversity of Coca-Cola drinkers, declaring that there’s a Coke for everyone. It did so with an original voice, with a smart tie-in to Coke’s array of new flavors, and subtly took a stand on equality. The spot prominently featured a voiceover using the gender-neutral pronoun “them” to describe one of the Coke drinkers.

The brands that did want to speak directly on issues during the big game did so by being relatively straightforward and specific. In partnership with Water.org, Stella Artois got attention by utilizing Matt Damon to urge viewers to purchase a branded chalice, sales of which would go directly to providing clean water to those around the world who struggle to find it. Simple, direct, and meaningful. Also impactful was Budweiser’s spot showing the company’s cans being rebranded and its workers delivering water to those in need, particularly calling out the recent disaster relief efforts in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico. Water may be the most important ingredient in beer, but these two companies showed self-awareness and support in its greater need. Hyundai subverted a prank-type setup to bring Hyundai drivers into rooms where pediatric cancer patients and their families thanked them, as part of every Hyundai sale goes to funding pediatric cancer research. While the a-to-b connection might be a bit stretched, the piece pulled at an emotional thread.

We don’t know if next year’s Super Bowl ads will see brands stay the course or return to more envelope-pushing. That will likely depend on what the world looks like in the next 12 months. Given consumer trends, it’s prudent for some brands to stand for something—and it will remain so. When better to take that stand than when the most eyeballs are on them? But for those that do, an old adage may prove to be the most effective advice: keep it simple, stupid.

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