Super Bowl Ads Have Gone Soft

Why advertisers are playing it safe this year.

Illustration: Brandon Celi

Remember watching the Super Bowl last year when that Nationwide ad came on? It featured a boy with tousled hair—so cute, right? And then the boy explained that he would never ride a bike, travel the world, or marry, because he was killed in a preventable home injury. The depressing spot generated so much backlash that the company issued a statement saying it intended “to start a conversation, not sell insurance.” The ad started a conversation, for sure, getting mocked mercilessly on Twitter: @KenJennings: “The Seahawks haven’t completed a pass but on the plus side I haven’t killed any of my kids”; @DanGrazianoESPN: “No one in the Nationwide advertising meeting put up their hand and went, ‘Let’s sleep on this?’ ”

Despite its poor execution, the ad was part of a trend toward longer commercials that pull on our heartstrings—one that many advertisers are expected to expand on this year, making emotional appeals to our better angels and abandoning humor and sex. Colgate will encourage viewers to save water while brushing their teeth. Anheuser-Busch InBev plans to introduce an ad campaign that promotes equal pay for women with this year’s Bud Light spot; last year the brand’s “Up for Whatever” ads were criticized for being tone-deaf to sexual assault. And GoDaddy, which made its name by pushing the boundaries of decency in previous championships, won’t air an ad during this year’s game for the first time in more than a decade. This is leading industry execs to ask: Has the Super Bowl gone soft? Advertisers “have been effectively neutered,” says Ian Schafer, founder of the Deep Focus agency.

Although not all brands have disclosed their plans, most are likely to fall in line. Last year two of the most popular ads were a McDonald’s spot that featured customers paying for meals with hugs and one from Always, the feminine products maker, urging girls to be confident. Commercials with sexual overtones have declined from 20 percent of the spots to 6 percent in the past two years: The big game is now “a family-oriented event,” and viewers no longer tolerate objectifying women, says Peter Daboll, chief executive officer of analytics firm Ace Metrix. And since 2010, the percentage of ads deemed “humorous” has dropped, from 71 percent to 49 percent, while the share of those considered “inspirational” has risen, from 2 percent to 22 percent.

This year advertisers may be even more conservative given growing tension about race relations and other national concerns. “There’s a lot of sensitive issues facing the country right now,” says Timothy Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “Advertisers are going to work very hard to stay away from that.”

The conservative approach underscores how much is at stake. Advertisers are paying CBS about $5 million for a 30-second spot during the Feb. 7 game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. They’re willing to spend big because it’s one of the few events that still draw a massive live audience—about 114 million people watched last year, the largest audience in TV history. Of course, playing it safe can also make it harder to stand out. “When you have one inspirational ad, that’s great,” Daboll says. “But when you have 12 in a Super Bowl, it kind of defeats the purpose.”

With the game’s viewers spanning different ages, genders, and political persuasions, it’s hard to make a commercial that appeals to everyone. So almost every year, one brand sparks controversy. Two years ago, Coca-Cola had people of various ethnic backgrounds singing America the Beautiful in their native languages. The ad backfired in some quarters, and people tweeted with the hashtag #SpeakAmerican. Last year it was Nationwide. So all brands have to do this year is not kill kids, and they should be fine.

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