Some Companies Play It Safe in Super Bowl Ads

02/01/18 09:14 AM EST
By Suzanne Vranica 

This year's Super Bowl ads will feature Inc.'s Alexa losing her voice, Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage having a lip-sync battle, and factory workers bottling water for people in disaster areas.

Humor, nostalgia and humanitarianism will be among the main themes, as many marketers look to play it safe and steer clear of controversy.

That is somewhat of a reversal from a year ago when companies waded into sensitive political and social issues, only to be greeted with a backlash on social media. Audi's spot promoted gender pay equality and Budweiser's highlighted the immigration story of its co-founder at a moment when immigration was a hot-button issue in Washington.

"The fear of a Twitter attack is fueling the play-it-safe approach," said Susan Cantor, chief executive officer of branding firm Red Peak.

Pepsi will appeal to nostalgia with a spot that riffs off its famous 1992 Super Bowl commercial featuring model Cindy Crawford. The ad will also include some celebrities that have appeared in past big-game ads for the soda brand.

"People are looking to smile a little bit" nowadays, said Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo's North America Beverage division.

The cost of entry this year for advertisers topped $5 million for 30 seconds of ad time. Some brands are using the expensive real estate to highlight their philanthropic endeavors.

Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser will air a spot that shows employees halting beer production to produce cans of drinking water for victims of natural disasters, while an ad for the company's Stella Artois brand will show actor Matt Damon plugging a clean-water initiative for developing countries.

AB InBev said this year's Bud spot is a continuation of its approach from last year of showing "real stories" about the company and telling them through the "lens of our employees," said Ricardo Marques, vice president of Budweiser marketing.

Among the several funny spots is Amazon's, in which Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, in his first appearance in a company ad, is told of the celebrities who are filling in for voice-assistant Alexa while she is sick -- everyone from a shouting Gordon Ramsay to a creepy Anthony Hopkins.

E*Trade Financial's spot shows elderly people who are forced to work because they failed to save enough for retirement.

Marketers are in a tough position. Consumers nowadays expect brands to make a difference in society and take a stance on important issues, ad executives say. However, a recent survey found that the Super Bowl might not be the right place for those topics.

Almost 65% of Americans believe the Super Bowl isn't the appropriate place for political messages, according to an online study conducted by Burson-Marsteller, a unit of ad giant WPP PLC. Some 67% of those surveyed say funny ads should be the priority, while almost half want to learn something new about a product.

For some marketers, associating with the NFL itself comes with some risks now, after controversies in the past two years over domestic-violence allegations, head injuries and players' protests during the national anthem. Pizza chain Papa John's, for example, raised concerns last year over the anthem issue.

Not everyone will be shying away from tackling social or political issues. WeatherTech, which makes mats for car floors, will promote domestic manufacturing, noting that it just opened a factory in the U.S. "Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" reads the text at the end of the ad.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola's 60-second spot entitled "The Wonder of Us" will highlight diversity and inclusion -- themes the company's marketing has emphasized for decades -- by showing people from different backgrounds reciting a poem about diversity and talking about how there is a different Coke for everyone.

"We all have different looks and loves, likes and dislikes too," the narrator says.

Such themes, whatever the intention of the marketer, can generate debate, as Coke found out last year. Its pregame ad, which featured people of different nationalities and lifestyles singing "America the Beautiful" in multiple languages, was criticized by some in social media for showing the patriotic song being sung in languages other than English.

Coke isn't concerned about drawing complaints, pointing out that last year's backlash didn't affect sales.

"You are always going to have the haters out there as Taylor [Swift] says," said Jennifer Healan, group director of integrated marketing communication for Coca-Cola. "I think that negativity does get squashed because good does prevail."

Not every company has revealed their game-night plans, and it is possible there could be some wild cards -- ads that are especially provocative or political.

If marketers play it too safe, consumers could be turned off by a "very vanilla Super Bowl," said Ms. Cantor from Red Peak.

Write to Suzanne Vranica at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 01, 2018 09:14 ET (14:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.