For most of its 55 years, the Super Bowl has entertained both football aficionados and those who don't know a first down from a false start. Super Bowl parties quickly became an annual tradition. A good number of those watching don't care who wins the game; they just want to enjoy eating, socializing, and, of course, watching the commercials.
The Super Bowl is likely the one time when television viewers actually look forward to commercial breaks. Football is tailor-made for ads since the 60 minutes of action is spread over three hours of real time. Corporations spend millions of dollars to put together 30- or 60-second nuggets of humor, sweetness, animal cuteness or shock value for the 90 million-plus viewers. Half the nation will be talking more about the commercials than the game itself on the day after.
Who can forget the E-trade baby showing us how easy it is to buy stocks online, then spitting up on his keyboard? Or Wendy's "Where's the beef?" ad complaining about the paltry size of hamburger patties? Reebok's "Terry Tate, Office Linebacker" ad was a hilarious sketch of one CEO's thinking outside the box, employing a very large football player as the administrator of office-cubicle justice. "You know you need a cover sheet on those TPS reports, Ritchie!! Oh, hey, Janice!" Just one of many memorable quotes from ads so good we can't even remember what was being marketed. Were Reebok shoes ever mentioned in those ads?
One company, Budweiser, may have produced the most memorable Super Bowl commercials. Three frogs appeared in 1995's Super Bowl, each croaking out part of the brand's name while staring at a tavern's Budweiser sign. More animals were used in their commercials than humans. There were horses playing football in a field, kicking an extra point while cowboys looked on ("They always do that?" "Nah, they usually go for two"). Lost dogs and puppies befriending horses made us laugh and tear up. The idiotic "Wassup?" commercials were hilarious until the constant repetition of the irritating phrase threatened our sanity.
Coke gave us a thirsty Mean Joe Greene exchanging his game-worn jersey for a Coke from a young fan. Polar bear families swigged sodas, and an international choir sang about sharing a Coke with the world. Pepsi competed by featuring two boys watching Cindy Crawford get a soda from a vending machine, unrealistically fantasizing over the Pepsi rather than the model. Michael J. Fox and his girlfriend were chased by a mad dog and then he risked his life for an attractive Pepsi-seeking neighbor. Careers were launched within Super Bowl ads while making the more boring, lop-sided Super Bowls tolerable.
After all the misery and economic hardships of the past year, one would think that companies would be chomping at the bit to produce Super Bowl ads if only to let us laugh, think, and know that life is still good. You would think wrong. Unfortunately, today's social climate reminds us, once again, why we can't have nice things.
Budweiser, Coke, Pepsi, and Hyundai announced that they will not be submitting ads for Super Bowl LV. The brands based their decision on shifting priorities and "ensuring we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times." This is corporation-speak for "we are terrified of possible negative repercussions resulting from our ads because our marketing people are clueless when it comes to assessing social consciousness."
For most companies, advertising during the Super Bowl is a "go big or go home" type of venture. The cost of a 30-second commercial is a little north of 5 million dollars, big money for an ad that bombs, or worse, makes people hate your product. Several companies have been burned in the past when they miscalculated the consumer's state of mind. Coke aired an ad in 2014, featuring the national anthem being sung in foreign languages. Xenophobic consumers came out in force, screaming that the song should only be sung in English by Americans, not foreigners. America the Ugly reared its head.
That was 7 years ago. The nation is much more divided now. If you run a company and want to make a relevant ad, you strive to position your product to attract the most consumers possible. But the country is split almost in half when it comes to just about any issue, whether it's politics, religion, or "tastes great/less filling." To which side do you position your product? The most likely outcome is that half of the public is offended regardless of which side is chosen. PETA could launch a social media campaign against a company if they deem a commercial exploited an animal. Leftist groups may find offense in demonstrators offering sodas to police in riot gear, saying the ad trivializes their cause. Right-wing groups could sue the pants off a company mocking conspiracy theories, though I think the QAnon insanity would be an excellent foil for a humorous ad.
Boycotts can be organized within minutes on social media, evidenced by all the corporations that pulled financial support for politicians spouting allegations of election fraud. Even a light-hearted ad, meant only to entertain, could be viewed as racist, sexist, or hostile to gender identity. Offense taken so quickly is, for many, reason enough to kill a product or company in response. Corporations are averse to risk, and with the public so on edge these days, it's best to stay on the sidelines. Let others take the risks, and hope your competition suffers the consequences.
Super Bowl LV pits the seasoned veteran Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the upstart youngster Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Let's hope this year's Super Bowl game stands on its own merit because the advertising will most likely disappoint.
Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.