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Marketing and Comms
Pomp, Personalities and Products Made for a Super Bowl with Little Purpose

Product, product, product drove Super Bowl commercials this year; purpose and ESG communication were largely left on the bench.

If Super Bowl commercials are a symbol of the times we live in, then put on your helmet and shoulder pads — sustainability and purpose communication are in for a tough game. Each year, I get to be the line judge and review all the Super Bowl ads on ESG excellence. This year it was easy; they were few and far between.

Not a waste

One brand that didn’t let the opportunity go to waste was Hellmann’s — which was back for the third consecutive time, fighting food waste. "Who's in the Fridge?" brings actors Brie Larson and Jon Hamm together in Pete Davidson’s fridge for a cheesy play on words. (Get It? “Brie” and “Hamm”?)

It’s down to candy and sport to spotlight inclusivity

Diversity is usually a hot topic at Super Bowl and in advertising. It’s great to see the strides being made in this space, as it’s no longer enough simply to raise the representation flag; brands — and their agencies and suppliers — are expected to make this an integral part of their efforts. But, hey — forget about that, because we’re back to scratch this year.

M&M’s recently retired an updated version of its candy characters because of complaints they had become too “woke.” Would M&M's stick to its values with the introduction of its new spokesperson, actor Maya Rudolph? I’m still trying to make sense of what hit me in the chocolate-covered-clam-filled Rudolph ad, “Clams” — as it felt more like an LSD trip than anything else; but, tadaaaaa — M&M’s had brought back its ‘woke’ candy characters with a vengeance. The whole, tongue-in-cheek exercise was fitting for the playful brand, although Rudolph’s part ended up being more weird than value-adding; but kudos to M&M’s for keeping its feet firmly planted in the chocolate.

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A clearer, more compelling commercial came from the NFL itself with “Run with it” — which featured a long chase scene with Mexican flag football star Diana Flores. Although the chase felt like a hook I have seen many times in sport commercials, it was still well told, engaging and drove home the pay-off: “To the women pushing football forward — we can’t wait to see where you take this game.”

EVs are here to stay

Last year, saw an unprecedented number of commercials for electric vehicles; and this year was no different. From an “Electric Boogie” ad from Jeep that felt more like a freeze than a dance, to a cheeky spot from Ram Trucks called "Premature Electrification.” A brilliant example of why we need more diversity on the agency and brand side — sorry, guys!

This year’s winner is …

One ad did stand out as a clever initiative — a clear value-add to both brand and business — without boring the shit out of me. "Why Not an EV?" — featuring General Motors spokesperson Will Ferrell — was a collaboration between Netflix and GM to showcase Netflix’s commitment to use EVs instead of fossil-fuel cars in its productions, whenever possible. Ferrell demonstrated all the possible and impossible scenarios where an EV could be playing a part in Netflix’s treasure chest of productions. The streaming service turned a boring commitment into an entertaining ad, which should serve as a lighthouse for any brand trying to showcase its commitments. And hey, GM got to integrate a whole range of EVs as a natural part of the storytelling.

Last and least

Let me just mention a few others that ventured into this space, though with less success. WeatherTech pitched its “Made in America” narrative, which felt more like a salesguy putting a foot in the door. Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s were no less clumsy with a male-narrated, cliché-ridden story about the joy of the outdoors — oh, and a last-minute mention of how you could save while supporting conservation efforts.

Far from purpose on purpose?

This year saw little value-driven work from brands but could also be a sign of what to expect in 2023 and beyond. It’s a challenging economic climate and people are anxious. Do they have enough money for rent, food and utility bills? Are their jobs secured? In this environment, it’s easy for brands and people alike to choose value over values.

But as the ESG market is becoming more competitive, virtue signaling won’t cut through; you must translate societal good into tangible value for people. In these times, people need brands to have their back — not to just brag. Investors in purpose pioneer Unilever, which just hired a new CEO, will be scrutinizing every little step where purpose doesn’t translate to profit. We might see a different Hellmann’s commercial next year that’s more about not wasting advertising dollars than food.

Maybe the purpose movement went too far when every candy company suddenly needed a purpose like was it simply a new flavour? No doubt, brands lack stamina — the sort of stamina it takes to win a Super Bowl, where it’s about setting your eyes on a goal and continuing to fight for it.

Every year, I see brands come and go with their purpose messaging. They behave like insecure teenagers, embracing every fad from ocean plastic pollution to the latest digital innovation like there is no tomorrow. It takes time to build a purposeful brand and demands a laser-sharp focus on translating societal good into value for you and me. Moreover, it demands common sense. How believable would it be if every beer, potato chip or car was on some sort of world-saving quest? Take your friends — they all play different roles in your life. And to be honest, if I had to pick a friend to bring to a Super Bowl match, I’d bring the fun one. So, maybe this seeming shift away from purpose is all on purpose?