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Image: Ben Affleck and friends star in Dunkin's 2024 Super Bowl ad | Dunkin'
A Super Bowl ad can shape a countrywide conversation; but most brands are
choosing gutless entertainment — missing an opportunity to differentiate, engage
and lead on today’s most pertinent issues.
January 22, 1984 — during a break in the third quarter of Super Bowl
XVIII, Apple showed its famous, Ridley Scott-directed commercial,
“1984,” as a dystopian warning
about the power of technology in the wrong hands and a nod to George
Orwell’s novel. The ad — which faced tough pushback from the Apple board and
was only approved last minute — was shown only that one time but created a press
frenzy. It was a bold move and one that paid off and shaped an iconic brand
Fast-forward 40 years, and the Doomsday
is at 90 seconds to midnight because of ominous
that continue to point the world toward global catastrophe — from the climate
emergency and biodiversity loss to wars and societal fragmentation. So, four
decades later, it’s never been more urgent for brands to show up as Apple did —
and shine a light on issues of critical importance to society and business. ESG
issues are the powerful topics and conversation starters of today and tomorrow —
the 2024 equivalent of 1984. So, where’s the bravery?
Sure, given the state of things, we can always use some levity; but now more than
ever, we need brands that dare to move the conversation and show transformative
leadership. But as we see from this year’s crop of inane ads aiming for little
more than a cheap laugh, most of today’s brands are playing it woefully safe and
missing a massive opportunity.
I’ve been writing about the big entertainment
for years and kept an acute eye out for any movements on the ESG front when
watching those commercials. We’ve debated, loved and ridiculed ads by brands
such as Hellman’s — whose
campaign to end food
has become a regular at Super Bowl in recent years. But when looking back at the
last seven years of Super Bowl ads, there are few ESG leaders or creative ESG
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Take a brand such as Chipotle, with an epic ad history that includes “Back
to the Start” (2012) — with its
powerful, visual storytelling and Willie Nelson performing Coldplay's
haunting classic “The Scientist” — which dared to challenge industrialized
farming and show us a better alternative. This was an ad that wanted to move
society, yet it didn’t air during the Super Bowl. Instead, Chipotle’s
contribution to the Super Ball Hall of Fame (or Shame) is the contrived, boring
“Can a Burrito Save the World”
(2021) — which plays like a CSR report with stock music. It seems like everyone
these days is over-testing their ads until they become as bland as a
spreadsheet, instead of daring to lead. Looking at the last seven years, one
thing is abundantly clear: There’s a lack of creativity in the ESG space when we
need it the most.
ESG has a role to play at Super Bowl, because ESG topics are the things we talk
about in between games — the horrible congestion in our cities, how our food has
more calories than nutrients, how the US seems more divided than
just to name a few. Why not use this opportunity to get people to talk more,
rather than aim for a quick laugh?
Looking at the last few years of Super Bowl ads, I’ve broken those that do touch
on deeper issues into two categories — with either a social or environmental
narrative. Of the roughly 50-60 ads that air during each Super Bowl, social
feature more prominently than environmental narratives (which is also something
I have observed more generally across the advertising industry). Social issues
are understandably easier to engage US football fans around than invisible
carbon emissions; but I view this as an untapped commercial opportunity. Among
the few environmental narratives, most are car commercials for hybrids or
electric vehicles: Super Bowl
for example, featured electric or environmentally conscious car ads from GM,
Nissan and BMW; and that remains the dominant
This environmental void in the Super Bowl ad space is your brand’s opportunity
to differentiate, engage and lead on climate and other environmental issues.
It’s your opportunity to inspire over 120 million US football fans to embrace
climate issues – not just those who already agree with
So, here’s a challenge for 2025 — to all those brands still determined to spend
a whopping $7
on a 30-second ad spot to play in front of TV’s biggest audience since the moon
40 years ago, Apple showed us at Super Bowl “why 1984 won't be like 1984” — now
it’s your turn to show us how you will change the world for the better.
Published Feb 12, 2024 11am EST / 8am PST / 4pm GMT / 5pm CET
Thomas Kolster is an internationally recognised marketing & sustainability expert, author and keynote speaker, and founder of the global Goodvertising movement that’s inspired a shift in advertising for the better.