Advertisers Eschew Politics for Humor in Super Bowl Commercials

Peter Dinklage, who stars in “Game of Thrones,” appeared in a commercial for a new spicy flavor of Doritos chips.

• Last year’s Super Bowl featured several ads that were political in nature. This year, companies focused more on humor and nostalgia.

• An ad for the Ram pickup that used a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon drew criticism online.

• Cindy Crawford, Peter Dinklage, Morgan Freeman and Jeff Bezos were among the famous faces featured in ads during the game.

• The New York Times provided live, drive-by-drive updates and analysis from Super Bowl LII.


As the Super Bowl headed into its final quarter, the ads continued to fluctuate between funny and somber. The N.F.L.’s own ad featuring the New York Giants’ Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. re-enacting moves inspired by the movie “Dirty Dancing” was a hit, as was Amazon’s Alexa ad, which included Cardi B, Rebel Wilson and the company’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos.

“There’s definitely a humanitarian theme that is running through the spots,” said Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer of the agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which created the Doritos-Mountain Dew ad. “That and humor seem to be the two themes of the night.”

While there were no commercials connected to the #MeToo movement, some still saw progress when it came to the role of gender in Super Bowl ads.

“I was just thinking that one thing I haven’t seen are those ads that objectify women, which is refreshing,” Ms. Johnson said. “And guess what? There’s still funny stuff on the air. We’re making progress.”

Still, some wished that there was more humor.

“It’s really a pretty lame year,” said Marianne Malina, president of the agency GSD&M in Austin, Tex. “When the TV promos for the Olympics and ‘The Voice’ and the N.F.L. and Justin Timberlake overshadow a lot, that says everything.”

Ms. Malina pointed out that that was a shift from the political tone of last year.

“It’s an interesting insight into just the level of risk that people are comfortable with right now,” Ms. Malina said. “Last year, people had a very strong response, and now, a year later, people are confused. Everyone’s trying to get their head around all the things that are going on, so you can see how maybe the risk dial goes down.”

“But in reality,” she added, “the risk dial maybe needs to go up.”

Verizon was among the brands that took a somber route. Its ad showed images of rescue situations and carried the voices of people thanking emergency workers, ending with the words: “They answer the call. Our job is to make sure they can get it.”

“In a culture and a climate where it’s hard to find any kind of positive news out there at the moment, it felt like something we wanted to really lean into and take on a very different message,” said Andrew McKechnie, Verizon’s chief creative officer.

The blowback was swift for Ram after the carmaker used a sermon given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the voice-over for one of its ads.

The general sentiment: Did it really just use Dr. King’s words about the value of service to sell trucks?

“MLK wanted equal rights and for me to buy a Dodge Ram,” one Twitter user wrote. Another wrote: “Black people cant kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the super bowl. Unbelievable.”

“It’s the wrong mistake to make given everything that’s going on in the U.S. right now,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “There’s so much emotion right now around race in this country that this was a high-risk move, and clearly it’s not going over very well.

“I think it was well intentioned, but they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mr. Calkins added. “They did not release this ahead of time, so they went for the surprise. They got that, but at the same time, they now have a big problem with feedback and people being upset.”

Adding to the disconnect, the sermon in question, delivered exactly 50 years ago, touched on the danger of overspending on items like cars and discussed why people “are so often taken by advertisers.”

Ram approached Dr. King’s estate about using his voice in the commercial, said Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, the licenser of the estate.

“Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances,” Mr. Tidwell said in a statement on Sunday night. “We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S. said in a statement: “We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals, and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way.”

The Super Bowl regularly draws elaborate schemes from advertisers, and this year is no exception. Tourism Australia — the Australian government agency responsible for attracting international visitors to the country — decided last April that it would buy a Super Bowl spot as part of a broader campaign geared toward drawing more visitors from North America.

The form it took: a big movie campaign for “Dundee,” a sequel to the movie “Crocodile Dundee,” starring the actors Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth.

The catch: “Dundee” isn’t actually being made, despite the entertaining trailers that have been released for the film, its movie website and IMDB page, and a cast introduction video that includes appearances from a host of famous Australians, including Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie, Isla Fisher and Russell Crowe.

“We did a scan around things like the Grammys and the Academy Awards and other sporting events like the N.B.A. Finals and the World Series, but the event that really stops this country is the Super Bowl,” said John O’Sullivan, the managing director of Tourism Australia. “It’s such a spectacle, right? If you look at it from a foreigner’s point of view, it’s this massive event which I think surpasses things like the Grand Slams in tennis and the Champions League final.”

North America is the second-most-valuable market for Australian tourism after mainland China, and one that the agency has decided to focus on in the last six months, Mr. O’Sullivan said. While many people want to visit Australia, he said, the trick for the country is moving up from a “bucket list” destination to a place that people will go in the near future.

The concept for the campaign was created by the ad agency Droga5, whose founder, David Droga, is Australian. Content tied to the pretend movie will morph after the Super Bowl ad and will continue to use Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth, Mr. Droga said.

“The beauty is there’s also a lot of content that moves with Chris and Danny that’s sort of them exploring the country as friends — as an Aussie showing around a mate,” he said.

Mr. Droga also noted that the campaign for “Dundee” benefited from the support of “Aussiewood” stars like Mr. Jackman and Ms. Robbie, who worked on it for “nothing.”

“If we had to pay commercial rights for those people,” then it “would be the most expensive ad in the Super Bowl maybe ever,” he said.



Super Bowl Ads Aim for the Heart to Hit the Wallet

Companies continue to use the Super Bowl platform to promote humanitarian causes either initiated or supported by their brands. It’s a type of marketing that promotes feelings over facts.

It’s almost formulaic. It starts with the emotional music: Then the text: The message: “I was diagnosed with pediatric cancer when I was 14 years old.” “Millions of people in the developing world walk up to six hours every day for water.” Then the grand finale: the brand. Companies continue to use the Super Bowl platform to promote humanitarian causes either initiated or supported by their brands. It’s a type of marketing that promotes feelings over facts. The ads are light on product details and heavy on emotion. “You helped save my child’s life and the life of so many children.” “So I’d like to say thank you. Except I would like to say it in person.” “Can I hug you?” And so there’s Hyundai, a South Korean car maker that has decided to donate a portion of sales to childhood cancer research. Stella Artois donated $3.13 to for every limited edition chalice sold. Are these companies aiming for philanthropy or profits? The average cost of a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl was more than $5 million this year. And that doesn’t count the expenses tied to making and promoting it, like the star power. Critics argue that if companies really cared they’d donate money directly to the cause instead of a $5 million ad promoting it.

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Companies continue to use the Super Bowl platform to promote humanitarian causes either initiated or supported by their brands. It’s a type of marketing that promotes feelings over facts.

One final Super Bowl connection: Mr. O’Sullivan noted that he spent a year of high school in Lebanon, Pa., making him a Philadelphia Eagles fan.

“Typically, you see the great work is front-loaded, and I guess my hope is that the better work is coming,” Wendy Clark, the chief executive of DDB North America and a former marketing executive at Coca-Cola, said at the start of the game’s second quarter. “At the end of the day, a Super Bowl ad is about epic, over-the-top production value,” and the first quarter “was a little quiet in the end.”

Still, Ms. Clark was a fan of the Tide ad and the Doritos-Mountain Dew ad featuring Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman lip-syncing to Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes.

“The complete flip to Morgan Freeman, it’s just so good,” she said. “There’s a surprise aspect there, and it’s really enjoyable watching those two characters rap — the complete 180 is fantastic.”

She added, “Functionally, you’re also thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I would eat those together.”

Tide drew the laughs heading into the second quarter with a meta commercial starring David Harbour (“Stranger Things”) that showed a slew of setups for other ads before interrupting itself with, “No, it’s a Tide ad.”

“I want to see how they bring it to life and on social,” Ms. Clark said. “I assume they’re going to comment on every single ad now from their handle.” (That’s @Tide on Twitter.)

Stella Artois ran a commercial featuring Matt Damon urging people to buy limited-edition chalices in order to give years of clean water to people in developing countries through a partnership with, which works for safe water and sanitation. That was joined by a somber commercial from Budweiser, set to the song “Stand by Me,” focused on the company’s efforts to deliver cans of water to people affected by natural disasters.

“Millennials like brands that link themselves to a social cause,” Charles R. Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova University School of Business, said. “What Stella Artois is doing with, I think, is really smart.”

Still, Stella Artois’s effort spurred some skepticism, with news outlets fact-checking the ad’s claims and some viewers asking why Stella Artois didn’t simply donate the cost of the commercial to The company, through a public relations firm, declined to say whether it had paid Mr. Damon for the appearance.

Pringles is running its first Super Bowl ad, starring the comedian Bill Hader, as it tries to popularize the notion of “stacking” chips with different flavors to arrive at a new, artificially flavored snack. (And, presumably, to encourage people to buy more than one pack of the chips at a time.)

Yuvraj Arora, a senior vice president of marketing at Kellogg, explained how to use the process to approximate the taste of chicken wings. “You take barbecue Pringles, buffalo ranch Pringles and ranch Pringles and you get a chicken-wing-like experience without the mess,” he said.

Mr. Arora noted that the way the millennial generation interacts with food, especially on social media, was an inspiration for the idea.

“Food is so central to millennials’ lifestyle,” he said. “All around, you see there’s mashups, new flavor experiences and a number of unique flavors.”

In an era of cord-cutting and ad-skipping, the Super Bowl is a sweet salve for the nation’s marketers. There’s no bigger stage for advertisers — last year’s game drew more than 111 million viewers — and that’s why they’re willing to shell out millions of dollars to be on it for 30 seconds.

Last year, commercials with social and political messages stole the show, but this year’s crop of advertisers seemed to steer clear of such commentary and aimed for laughs and nostalgia.

Of course, they’re paying the same high-ticket prices: The average cost of a 30-second ad in the Super Bowl is more than $5 million this year, according to ad buyers, roughly in line with last year. And that doesn’t count all the expenses tied to making and promoting an ad, like the star power. Cindy Crawford, Peter Dinklage and Danny DeVito are among the famous faces who will make commercial appearances this year.

While some ads focused on philanthropy, the tone seemed to have shifted from last year, when Airbnb and 84 Lumber ran spots that were viewed as responses to President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and Audi broadcast a commercial advocating equal pay for women. Some industry experts had expected at least one major ad focused on women this year, perhaps tied to the #MeToo movement.

“I’m a little bit surprised,” Charles R. Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova University School of Business, said. “Some of the best ads over the last 10 years have focused on female empowerment, like the Audi daughter ad.”

Women are generally much less visible in Super Bowl ads than men, even as Nielsen data shows that women were 47 percent of the audience for last year’s game. Mr. Taylor, who recently studied Super Bowl ads from 2008 to 2017, found that 76 percent of the commercials showed a man as a principal character, while 43 percent featured a woman as a principal character.

Susan Credle, the global chief creative officer at the agency FCB, said Super Bowl advertisers may be “concerned about looking opportunistic versus supportive.” And humor, she noted, was particularly appealing given the social and political climate.

“Sometimes when the world is troubled or America is feeling a little — well, I wouldn’t say it was an up 2017 for everybody — I think there is a tendency to want to balance out the energy,” Ms. Credle said. “Lightheartedness and a little fun and joy is probably a good antidote to the reality that we’re sitting in.”

Fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” have been buzzing about a commercial for Doritos and Mountain Dew that stars the actors Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman, as well as the musicians Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes. The brands, owned by Pepsi, cast Mr. Dinklage to represent fire, for a new spicy Doritos flavor, while Mr. Morgan plays ice for a new kind of Mountain Dew.

Greg Lyons, the chief marketing officer of Pepsi’s North American beverage unit, said the casting was not a reference to Mr. Dinklage’s “Game of Thrones” character, who advises a queen who owns dragons. The actor, he said, is “fiery on his own.”

Mr. Lyons said, “He was in ‘Elf’ — he was pretty fiery in that as well.”

In another kind of pop-culture moment, Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, who has become far more visible in recent months at Hollywood and charity events, will appear in his first ad for the company, which promotes its Echo device.

While it has never been easier for advertisers to reach vast numbers of people around the world, thanks to the internet, the lure of the Super Bowl is the one huge audience it provides. Advertisers spent a combined $534 million on ads before, during and after the game last year, according to the research firm Kantar. The company said that the roughly $5 million a 30-second commercial cost last year compared to $2.5 million for 30 seconds in the National Football Conference championship game and $1.9 million for the same time in the Academy Awards.

“It’s a finite amount of inventory,” Gibbs Haljun, managing director of media investment at GroupM, the media buying arm of WPP. “There’s only one game, it’s only on once a year, the ratings are relatively stable and it is what it is.”

Still, it appeared that NBC was selling at least some spots down to the wire, as illustrated by a last-minute buy from that the company announced on Friday. In January, was promoting its decision to sit out of this year’s game and arranging press interviews with its chief marketing officer about alternative plans for the money.

NBC said in an email late Friday that it had sold all of its ads for the game.

The network, which is owned by Comcast, has had the dual challenge this year of selling ads for both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, which will begin on Friday.

“I can’t remember the last time that occurred,” Mr. Haljun said, “so this is kind of an odd challenge for them and continues to make the negotiations a little more interesting and robust.”

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