The Line: How to Avoid Insensitivity during Super Bowl Ad Airtime

Though 30-seconds may not seem like a long time - more like the amount of time it takes to tie tennis shoes or microwave dinner - a 30-second aired spot for the Super Bowl is precious gold in the eyes of a marketer. Football is not “America’s favorite past-time,” but The Super Bowl is definitely one of the most watched programs nationwide. This year’s Super Bowl LII ratings were lower than past years, but a massive 103.4 million viewers still tuned in to watch the tense game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots and, more importantly, the Super Bowl ads.

Read also: Measuring the ROI of Super Bowl ads

In all of the hustle and bustle to get a flashy, viral, or memorable commercial for the Super Bowl, marketers sometimes forget the very thing that makes humans unique: empathy.

Marketers are in such a rush to provide “shock value,” and produce a memorable spot, that they become tone deaf to sensitive topics.

Before launching an insensitive or wasteful ad campaign, marketers need to ask themselves the following questions:

Is this commercial exploiting a certain topic or person for personal gain?

It is a no brainer that social justice and awareness are important. But if an ad is using a renown, historical, and moving speech to sell an unrelated product - say a vehicle - then is social justice really the point?

The Ram truck commercial was a disaster. No matter what the angle was, it was executed poorly. How did this ad get as far as being approved for production? There certainly has been controversy on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. estate granting permission, but that is not where the true issue lies.

MLK himself, would have disapproved of this ad. This is tainting the meaning of his words. The gravity of his message was not meant to sell trucks, in fact, a portion of his speech speaks directly against advertisements. Although the creators' intentions meant well and wanted to advocate for service, the timing was not the best. 

Using a platform to take a stance and give a voice to the unheard is important, but using that voice to shill for an unrelated product can seem tone-deaf.

Does this commercial relate or tie to the brand whatsoever?

Similar to the RAM commercial where MLK’s speech truly had nothing to do with transportation, there were several ads attempting to make a point or speak out on a message when it clearly did not fit in with their brand.

T-Mobile, for one, had a baby ad promoting diversity and a prejudice-free generation. Great speech, great message, but what did that have to do with the phone company besides stating that everyone is “connected.” It was apparent that they were trying a little too hard.

Hyundai prominently stood above the rest of the car campaigns by leveraging a different angle. They promoted their philanthropy “Hope on Wheels” in a touching and delicate way. The ad praises consumers who already contribute to their cause and promotes cancer awareness to those who are unaware of Hyundai’s work.  

The Ram commercial may have worked if it were promoting a group or charity with that specific message, or even had less flashes of the truck itself. Make sure the message is about the brand or ties into the services offered. Making a social statement is not always necessary. In fact, some of the most successful Super Bowl ads were ones like Doritos who displayed the product and personality of their brand.

Is the commercial unique or just weird for the sake of weird?

Sometimes it is innovative to think outside of the box with “cool” and “quirky” ads, but, other times, it is distracting.

Bud Light’s Dilly Dilly campaign was humorous and well done, creating its own universe around a slogan that, quite frankly, had nothing to do with the product. “Dilly Dilly” fits  the “personality” of the brand. The creators then took it too far for their Super Bowl spot when they attempted to create a mascot, the “Bud Knight.” In this case, they were trying too hard and beating the dead horse of a previously successful campaign.

A commercial that was shocking for all the right reasons, on the nose with highlighting the capabilities of the brand, and unique due to it’s self awareness was Tide’s commercials. They not only had a lovable celebrity but they were clever and hilarious.

Advertising during the Super Bowl is huge (and expensive), don’t blow it. Be relevant and relatable but be aware - and DON’T be tone-deaf or insensitive. Awareness of how others will respond is key. Be empathetic. Sometimes striking an emotional chord isn’t necessary to win over a crowd - sometimes understanding what they want and need is all that matters. So give them a smile and stay true to the brand.