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Marketing and Comms
Brands Are Missing a Climate Leadership Opportunity at the Super Bowl

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 forever.

Is your brand mirroring or moving society?

Fast-forward 40 years, and the Doomsday Clock is at 90 seconds to midnight because of ominous trends 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.

ESG lighthouses are missing at Super Bowl

I’ve been writing about the big entertainment spectacle 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’swhose campaign to end food waste 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 lighthouses.

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.

When ESG does emerge, social narratives dominate

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 ever, 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 narratives 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 2022, for example, featured electric or environmentally conscious car ads from GM, Nissan and BMW; and that remains the dominant theme.

Let’s make 2025 the year of climate leadership at Super Bowl

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 you.

So, here’s a challenge for 2025 — to all those brands still determined to spend a whopping $7 million on a 30-second ad spot to play in front of TV’s biggest audience since the moon landing: 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.