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Super Bowl Ads 2019: The Death Wish of Playing Safe

Photo of Georgia Meyer
by Georgia Meyer

Over the last few years, brands have been taking increasingly political stances. Whether Heineken’s ‘Open Your World’ 2017 ad, or Gillette’s ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’ spot at the start of 2019, there has been a growing trend for brands boldly (and some say, haphazardly), entering the ‘political’ sphere.

Super Bowl ad spots are the world’s most expensive, with CBS seeking $5.1 - $5.3 million for commercial packages that air during the game. They are tentpole opportunities for brands to establish their vision and values.

In recent years brands like Coca Cola have used these spots to promote messages of unity. Budweiser used a 2017 spot to highlight the immigrant roots of the company’s founder. This year many, but not all, of the values being expressed are safe, staid and ultimately, irrelevant. One ad – from Budweiser – stands out for communicating the actions the company has taken to improve the world, rather than dialing up controversy or ignoring the state(s) of the world altogether.

Peak political

Ads reached their politicised pinnacle in September 2018 with the release of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ anniversary ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, ahead of the NFL season’s opening game. That ad, in that context, with that casting, has to be the closest alignment with one side a brand has ever taken on an issue as divisive as kneeling during the anthem, on a stage as large as that.

Assessing the success of the ad on social media is an imprecise science – clearly, it ignited serious passions on either side. Beyond that, it has been widely reported that Nike’s sales surged in the days following the campaign.

The death wish of playing safe

The Wall Street Journal reported that 77% of Baby Boomers dispparoved of political Super Bowl ads. Perhaps this group are the same group outraged by what must be described as Gillette’s recent controversial spot. This cohort will probably be reassured by the repertoire of ads that have been released online ahead of their Super Bowl premieres.

From Pepsi to Stella Artois to Pringles, these ads are devoid of politicised narratives and sentiment. Rather, they portray low key pass times like ordering a ‘Cola’ in a fast food restaurant (initiating a sketch about Pepsi with Steve Carell and Cardi B).

Stella’s ad resuscitated Jeff Bridges’ cult anti-hero The Big Lebowski, pairing him with another cult character from the past, Carrie Bradshaw. VICE tore into the ad (‘Has the whole world gone crazy?’) for leveraging these nostalgic nineties characters in awkward and inexplicable unison.

Even if Baby Boomers (and younger cohorts) watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night are temporarily relieved by an absence of yet more highly-politicised messaging, at a time of such incessant real-life political turmoil, the risk these ads run is that they make the companies appear wildly out of touch. When the world is on fire, images of people sitting on couches eating Pringles look strange, almost absurd.

If politics is set to become yet more divisive and desperate (Britain is on the cusp of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and Trump has warned of another government shut down), people may continue to want, they may even need, to feel that companies are stepping up where governments are failing.

Statements with substance are ‘better’

Budweiser’s 2019 Super Bowl spot (‘Wind Never Felt Better’) depicting a horse and wagon trundling through hop fields, sound tracked with Bob Dylan, is set to be a moment of calm amidst the adrenalin of Sunday night’s game. Sidestepping more politicised topics like immigration, the ad has a simple message at its core: Budweiser ‘now brewed using wind power for a better tomorrow’. A year ago, Reuters published that a ‘100% renewable electricity’ label would be added to Budweiser beer – this is now imminent.

Given the Trump administrations decision to not make climate change a priority, there is an inadvertently political message at its core. The ads calm creative execution avoids accusations and party politics. Instead, it reminds of the responsibility commercial companies have and shows how much can be done.

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