2017 is likely seen as a turning point for brands to take a stand in their Super Bowl advertising. The best-known example was 84 Lumber, a brand that made a bold immigration statement, seemingly out of nowhere. Airbnb and Coca-Cola promoted diversity and unity, Audi pursued the gender pay gap, and Kia had a climate message. In the game itself, the halftime show Lady Gaga undermined the performance with a political statement.
Even one of America’s most venerable brands, Budweiser, ran an ad telling the story of how immigrants played a vital role in building the country. The stamp was swept around by xenophobes (after #BoycottBudweiser) and quickly found that it was not making a political statement. With the political climate as it was when Trump began his first and only term in office, the outrage (false or not) was a fait accompli.
Escapism is over, social justice is in
In the years that followed, viewers were fed a solid diet of comfortable, volatile Super Bowl dishes. Last year’s ads, for example, took a far cry from the 2017 brothers and were a comparatively sugary exercise in expected commercial entertainment.
But here we are in 2021 and the world is a very different place. In the past year alone, goal posts for decency, caring, and humanity in the United States have been shown to tend to move everywhere. First with the pandemic, then with the murder of George Floyd and others, centrist thinking seems a curious and antiquated notion.
Last week’s riot at the Capitol and the idea of brands delving into political or thematic issues seem like a breeze, even with big corporate CEOs getting involved.
However, the December research by data intelligence company Morning Consult paints a different picture. Of the 1,300+ adults who want to watch the Super Bowl, 60% said the game is a good place for brands to promote issues, especially social justice, in their ads.
“It’s easy for people to think I just want three hours of entertainment on a Sunday night,” said Drew Train, co-founder and president of the Oberland special-purpose agency. “But for generations we’ve taken the easy path out of everything, and that’s what brought us here. Brands need to use their loudest voice to make a stake in the ground. “
Read the room
According to Michael Serazio, Ph.D., an associate professor in Boston College’s communications department, the Super Bowl is a moment for advertisers to read the space related to culture and zeitgeist. A few years ago, Serazio and his colleagues conducted a national poll that found that people didn’t want sport and politics mixed up. However, recent research shows that American sports fans are increasingly approving of the two getting together.
“There’s been a lot of talk by marketers about brands taking a stand,” Serazio said. “But that’s a cliché and they’re not really interested in taking a position that could potentially alienate half the country. This is a way for brands to generally feel part of this intense political moment without actually getting involved in complicated, divisive politics. I think you might see that in the Super Bowl. “
Morning Consult went deeper and asked respondents which topics, messages and problems would lead to a positive opinion of a brand. Black Lives Matter was ranked 12th on the list, just below criminal justice reform and above tighter gun control.