Companies Make a Play for Hearts and Minds with Super Bowl Ads

The drama of this year’s big game in Houston is already fading into memory – although many now consider it to be the most exciting in Super Bowl history. Moreover, some viewers have decided that Super Bowl LI is the first broadcast in recent history in which the game was more interesting than the ads. Many corporations might be a bit disappointed in that finding, given that they spent around $300 million for a few dozen ads ranging from 30 to 90 seconds.

I’ve long argued, and more frequently in the past few years, that ads which seek brand identification and awareness might do more, gaining credit for the values that the product and firm supplies. Values did gain some prominence during the Super Bowl broadcast this year—some ads focused on diversity, tolerance, and fairness.

  • The Expedia ad showed a woman as she passed through life, meeting people from a wide array of cultures—diversity and tolerance done well. But, of course, Expedia provides travel services and all these encounters happened outside the U.S. Good value message, but it excludes encounters between different kinds of Americans—the Blues and the Reds—and the greater tolerance that might have stemmed from those encounters. They might have noted that visiting the world means visiting your fellow Americans too!
  • The Audi ad showed a loving father proudly watching his daughter participate in a soapbox derby race, which she won. Nice story, but it illustrates how far corporations are from the reality of change: girls began participating in these races in 1971 and have steadily become more competitive with boys, winning many races starting in the mid-70s. Audi is behind the times: women have long been fighting to gain their own achievements—and they’ve been winning. Ironic then that Audi would endorse a scheme to mandate equal pay!
  • The Anheuser Busch immigrant founder ad was better. It shows how the firm has benefited from immigrants, and indeed that its founder was an immigrant. Still, the emphasis was on his arrival and not his subsequent achievements, so a bit of miss there. Still, a fine value ad.
  • The Coca-Cola ad hit the one-value home run, showing individuals from a diverse range of cultures all singing “America the Beautiful.” It was an example of the E Pluribus Unum story – from many diverse sources, we become one nation. And, of course, the unifying capitalist symbol is the Coke itself!

The rest were a mixed bag of messages. Some were simply seeking name identification for new products, while some featured crude humor or confusing premises (Americans have been brainwashed into eating Mexican avocados because of a sinister band of hooded cultists?).

When evaluating the impact of such high-profile ad campaigns, we must remember that corporations are in trouble – people see more bad than good in corporate America, even though they may like and enjoy their products. So we buy the product and vote for further regulation.

We need creative value ads that reach Americans as citizens, alerting us to how products advance the social values we seek and fending off interventionist political threats to the products and services we enjoy.