Quick laughs, bad jokes, celebrities — but very few with a message.
When advertisers enter the world’s priciest commercial break during the Super Bowl, you’d expect them to have a powerful message that would strengthen the brand, like E-trade’s talking baby from 2008; relaunch the brand in a new courageous direction, like Apple’s “1984”; or simply be an attention grabber, like VW’s 2011 Darth Vader ad — but this year seemed more like the warm-up for a high school football game.
The commercials were a trip back to the nineties onboard the mad scientist Doc Brown’s time travelling DeLorean (which actually featured in this year’s Walmart ad), where celebrities, Hollywood, dogs and bad jokes were dominating the TV screens. Pepsi even ran an ad that sounded like one big justification for itself: “Is Pepsi ok?” Maybe Coca-Cola should put some ad spend behind it or send a thank you letter to Pepsi?
Playing it safe
Last year, I heard many advertisers and agencies voice concern about purpose-washing or Goodvertising gone too mainstream. On occasion I’ve even joined the critics, but mostly when I see a purpose-poo too smelly to ignore — like an arms company promoting its contribution to society. But this year, even the most creative agencies and advertisers collectively decided to play it safe. The progress we’ve seen earlier years from corporate America, in terms of standing up for issues they believed in, was almost non-existent; maybe after all, it wasn’t a belief, but an attempt to wow consumers into buying more? Or simply just another outlived trend, like the yo-yo? Advertisers from Hyundai to Planters even ridiculed the advancements made into planet-friendly eating habits. Kale chips? Beetloaf? Seriously?
The few highlights
There were few highlights — such as **Microsoft**’s ad for game controllers enabling all kids to play — an uplifting technology message; or Google’s ad, “100 Billion Words,” about how technology allows us to communicate more easily across cultures. Kudos to Budweiser for continuing to tout its societal commitment — I really admire their resolve; none of the challenges we’re facing as a society have quick wins. Last year, it was about bringing water to those in need following horrible natural disasters like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; this year Budweiser showcased, to the beautiful sounds of Bob Dylan’s "Blowin' in the Wind," how it is part of a carbon-friendlier tomorrow by brewing its beer powered by wind energy — an important message, as politicians are still trying to use climate change as a pawn in their political circus.
And some brands did dare to interfere with politics again this year, although less openly. Car maker Kia touted a US-First agenda with an ad celebrating the ordinary people producing their cars; but executed without the muscle from earlier, similar messages like Chrysler’s Super Bowl “Imported From Detroit” 2016 campaign. The Washington Post also lacked thrust with its 1-minute ad featuring live footage, but the message was important: "Knowing keeps us free."
And maybe that’s all we can deduct from this year. We have to keep the discussion going about the role of advertising and the role of corporations in our society, and how corporations should or shouldn’t use their voice to make us laugh, cry, think, act or buy.
I feel like the guy portrayed in Audi’s Super Bowl ad, who drives an Audi e-tron GT only to wake up and sadly realize it was all a dream, and he’s been rescued by co-workers from a near-death experience choking on a cashew. Please bring me back to a period before this year’s Super Bowl, where I naively thought Corporate America gave a shit. Please, let me keep dreaming.