Except for a clutch of ads for EVs, it seems the climate crisis is not yet a force driving brand messaging at the Super Bowl. But a few brands seized the opportunity to drive adoption of sustainable behaviors at scale.
The vast majority of this year's Super Bowl ads encouraged us all to keep flying, to keep eating highly processed foods (including industrial meat); and, in general, to keep on ‘buying’ as we’ve always done. Aside from a clutch of ads for electric vehicles, it seems the climate crisis and social inequities are not yet reasons for brands not to appear at the Super Bowl; nor, unfortunately, are most companies seeing it as an opportunity to drive adoption of sustainable behaviors at scale.
Using these ads as a barometer, our ‘new normal’ seems to be an era we may as well call "Anthropocene as usual." And while the majority of Big Game advertisers may not be ready to use their air time to address the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and the societal challenges we face; a handful of forward-thinking brands are willing to go ‘prime time’ with them.
20% of this year's ads featured a sustainability message.
Of the ads that were sustainability-focused, the great majority were for EV vehicles. But two ads threw shade on our fascination with humans inhabiting Mars.
The first, from Salesforce, encouraged us to look at what we can do to help earth: “While the others look to the metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours,” Matthew McConaughey announces.
Aside from giving Zuckerberg, Bezos and Musk a not-so-subtle side eye, the ad firmly establishes Salesforce’s sustainability stance. This ad passes many of the criteria we’ve seen for a high-performing sustainability ad: It doesn't dwell on negativity, it focuses on a positive future, and it sets up positive behaviors we can adopt. It doesn't, however, cover any of what Salesforce is doing, specifically — and our research tells us that could have made it stronger. The ad is part of Salesforce’s new #TeamEarth campaign, which details elsewhere the company's corporate responsibility initiatives and shares ideas to help business leaders draft their own commitments.
The second ad to mention Mars comes from Polestar, which — in a classically Scandinavian way — goes for a simple, understated, visual approach in advertising its EV.
The ad defines what Polestar is by what highlighting what it’s not: “No greenwashing, no conquering Mars, no dieselgate; no blah, blah, blah.” While the dark green consumers who could follow all the references may have really appreciated the ad, it’s likely to have a more limited appeal to a mainstream US audience.
In addition to Polestar, GM, Nissan, BMW, Kia and Chevy all advertised EVs — at this point, really, shame on any car company that's still pumping the gas pedal in a Super Bowl spot (we won’t name the brands that did). The beautiful thing about EV ads is that they’ve been a staple at the Super Bowl for over a decade now, so we no longer have to explain the benefits of EVs. What's disappointing about that is that creatives seem to be getting lazy and using borrowed stories to sell them. So, we find a category that used to be unique becoming somewhat commoditized, defaulting to trying to differentiate brands by reuniting TV series casts around them. At least, GM had a slightly more refreshing approach — uniting some of the Austin Powers cast, but showing you can tackle tough topics (climate change and carbon footprints) in an entertaining way.
“Advertisements give us instant access into the cultural and organizational psyche. This year’s Super Bowl ads seem intentionally sunny and positive, perhaps as a counterbalance to the heaviness and constriction people are feeling right now.” — Renee Lertzman, climate psychologist
Continuing the spirit of fun, Hellmann’s "make taste, not waste" campaign tackles food waste, which is one of the Nine Most Impactful Consumer Behaviors that brands can encourage. Hellmann’s does this in a head-on, pun-tastic and fun way. The ad is simple and to the point, serving up easy alternatives to throwing away food — giving consumers tips on making tasty dishes from their leftovers, and avoiding food waste. It doesn't dwell on negatives: It could easily have started with ‘doom and gloom’ facts about how much food is wasted in the US every year (roughly ⅓ of all food), but it avoids that completely. Consumers don't need a repetition of how bad things are, they want to know what we — consumers and brands — can do together to fix it. The ad does a great job selling the product, while empowering consumers to adopt a new behavior. If we’d been able to test all sustainability-focused Super Bowl ads in our Ad Sustainability Awareness Platform (ASAP) testing platform, this one likely would have scored highest.
Meanwhile, shout out to Google for delivering on another of the Nine Most Impactful Behaviors, expanding equity and opportunity, through product innovation. Google has equipped its latest Pixel 6 phone with a camera that picks up real skin tones and is designed specifically for those with darker skins, because “everyone deserves to be seen as they truly are.”
Supporting women and girls is another of the Nine Most Impactful Behaviors for consumers. Disappointingly, there were not many ads aimed at driving this behavior. It was good therefore to see Hologic — which is committing to promoting health equality for 3.9 million women — join the Super Bowl for the first time.
Black women experience significant health disparities due to systemic societal inequities, and within the US healthcare system itself. Being at the intersection of both race and gender discrimination, Black women are now at the center of a public health emergency that the news media rarely cover. So, it was refreshing to not see one white male in this ad (compared to the male protagonists in the vast majority of the Super Bowl ads) — and affirming to see Mary J Blige, portraying herself: a busy, Black woman who is still able to make time to put herself and her health first.
Consumer adoption of sustainable behaviors fell by a whopping 17% last year. Just as the IPCC report declared a ‘code red for humanity,’ humanity decided to do less about it.
In 2021, some major brands sat out the Super Bowl. Budweiser, for example, instead donated money to COVID vaccine awareness. This year, as the US approaches 1 million dead from COVID, and comes down from its highest peak of infections ever last month, no such lofty statements were made.
But aside from that, the fluffy tone and subject matter of most of this year's ads implies that brands assume consumers are tired — exhausted and demoralized by the pandemic and all of its ripple effects dragging on, and needing a balm of levity and hope — and they are; we all are. But consumers also cite one of the top reasons they don't adopt sustainable behaviors is because they “don't know where to start.” Brands could have taken their $6.5 million per spot x 56 ads and made a real difference to an audience of over 100 million US consumers, giving clear ways to start consuming more responsibly vs simply consuming more.
There was one ad that got close to it, though; and even though it's not focused on sustainability, it deserves an honorable mention because its messaging was almost spot on in other ways. Expedia’s “Stuff” ad seemed to be boldly anti-consumption and looked like it was coming from the same place as Patagonia's famous "Don't Buy This Jacket" print ad. If we ever do want to mention the elephant in the room (overconsumption at an all-time high), Expedia has shown we can create compelling communications around it.
While the ad discourages buying “stuff” in lieu of encouraging us to instead spend money on experiences, it's a missed opportunity for Expedia to have pushed sustainable tourism options — but I’m guessing that's not a large part of its business (plus, ‘sustainable tourism’ itself may still likely be an oxymoron for some time).
So, as brands plan for Super Bowl 2023, let's hope more people follow the wisdom in the Salesforce ad: “It's not time to escape; it’s time to engage.” Our planet and society need brands to engage and do more. Brands and agencies might also want to check out our top 10 tips for making an effective, sustainability focused ad.
I look forward to a time when our sustainability narratives are the leading stories we tell about ourselves at the Super Bowl and every day — stories of hope, inspiration and collective action.
Ad Sustainability Awareness Platform (ASAP)
Test your ads against the I-ACT Principles: Influence, Action, Credibility and Talkability in tandem with behavioral messaging goals to generate your sustainability effectiveness score. Your sustainability effectiveness score, supplemented by open-ended response verbatims, can help you understand ad performance in the context of your industry’s best-in-class ads and areas for optimization in creative development with real-time feedback. To learn more about the SB Brands for Good ASAP tool or to submit ads for testing, please visit the ASAP website.
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For more information on how to access highlight reports of the analysis and insights on consumer sustainability intentions and actions, please visit the Socio-Cultural Trends website.