Super Bowl Advertising: Controversy and Diversity and Ingenuity and Absurdity … Oh, MY!

/ 10-minute read /

A Super Bowl for the Ages

Well, that was a Sunday night to remember:

  • An impossible come-from-behind overtime win led by a 39-year-old Tom Brady who has now achieved Olympian status.
  • A dazzling Lady Gaga flying through the air along with drones gathered to form Old Glory and performing her considerable catalogue of diverse entertainment.
  • And speaking of diversity, the show was not lacking for distraction with the $5 Million / 30-second commercials … Americana, celebrities, familiar brands and a new one whose message was continued on its website.

Inevitably, in our current politically charged landscape, each of these events was accompanied by a Greek Chorus of pundit interpretation:

  • Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been identified as partisans of President Trump and the Patriots surprise victory alluded to as a metaphor for the 2016 election.
  • Gaga pulled off something of a surprise by delivering pure feel-good music and an homage to anthemic American songs and her mom and dad; at least some fans were hoping for a political screed, a la Meryl Streep at the Golden Globe Awards.
  • The most critical day-after ink has been spilt over the commercials – some accused of promoting pro-immigrant (and therefore anti-travel ban) sentiment … Budweiser; others drawing ire for being 'shrill and feminist' … Audi; and still others for being memorable and original but not especially brand specific … Honda.

So let’s have a look at the most talked-about advertising and what exactly is being said, shall we?

Gold-Plated Panel of Ad Experts

My sources of ad feedback for my mother-in-law research are stellar: YouTube comments directly attributed to specific commercials; Frank Luntz, the redoubtable focus group moderator for all things vox populi; and, my favorite media critic, Barbara Lippert — Ms. Lippert is an Editor-At-Large for MediaPost and regularly runs a Facebook dialogue thread among her 1,285 followers of media mavens.

The Cars Have It

It ain’t a Super Bowl without auto advertising, and this year’s broadcast delivered ‘bigly.’  For my money, the comeback trophy should go to Alfa Romeo which returned to the Super Bowl stage with a handsome spot and aspiration–specific tagline: ‘Ride on the Backs of Dragons:’

Honda CR-V weighed in using an inventive concept ad of celebrities remembering their high school dreams with talking photos right out of their actual yearbooks. “Chasing Dreams” urges us to follow our passions:


“Loved the special effects and made us remember that we were all goofy teenagers with big dreams. And I loved my first, second and third Honda that eventually was passed down to our son, brother, cousins ..”
“Great tech. Don’t really understand how it connects to the product.”

The controversy over Audi's “Drive Progress” is curious. After all, the commercial is a Dad’s voiceover pondering how to tell his daughter, seen winning a box car race, that she will face equal pay issues regarding her gender. 

It’s a gorgeous commercial … how could anyone object?

Frank Luntz:

“This tested higher among women; among all commercials tested in our focus groups this year, Audi showed the biggest difference by gender.”
“I attribute this to Hillary Clinton and her effect on the election. Keep politics out of the Super Bowl.”


"This is all the work of ugly unattractive feminists who can’t get a member of the opposite sex, so they feel the need to bring down other women instead of improving themselves.”

Diversity Rules the Airwaves

If there was any unifying theme to the night, it was advertisers’ desire to portray themselves as products for Everyman.

Coca-Cola reached back to a 2014 commercial to demonstrate how beautiful the world can be with Coke, from sea to shining sea:

Google Home featured its Google Home helper with not-so-subtle cuts of family shots from the wide world of diverse homes draped in LGBTQ flags, to homes with mezuzahs, to homes with black, brown, Hispanic, Indian people … well, you get the picture:

Not be outdone, Michelin laid its marker down on the multicultural table too – getting people of every skin color and gender preference home safely on a stormy night:

It’s Trump’s World; We’re All Just Living In It

Rounding out the evening was the lurking presence of politics, whether intentional or not.

Budweiser made a commercial to honor the heritage and struggle of its founder, Adolphus Busch. He is seen traveling to America amid taunts of “You don’t look like you’re from around here” and “Go home” before he is finally welcomed to St. Louis and meets up with Mr. Anheuser.

Frank Luntz:

“Panelists didn’t see this as political and rated it only about average; it’s unlike other typical Budweiser commercials which always test very positively.”

You Tube:

“Stupid terrorist propaganda. budwizer used to be my favorite, but I will never drink it again. along with budlight (nasty anyways) and miller which is owned by budwizer. yall suck.”
“if you're insulted by the story of an immigrant entrepreneur than you're undeniably an oversensitive xenophobe like calm down”

84 Lumber came out of advertising obscurity with what was originally a 5-minute spot, but FOX wouldn’t allow them to air it in its entirety. The company’s solution was to run a teaser ad on the Super Bowl and then ask viewers to continue watching the commercial for 84 Lumber on its website:

(Of note: The 84 Lumber website crashed while the Super Bowl was still live.)

Frank Luntz:

“This had a very positive message to panelists.”

Kyle Smith, New York Post:

“ .. are you promising to compensate anyone who dies trying to cross the desert because he saw a TV commercial implying that 84 Lumber will hire him if he manages to sneak into the U.S.?”

Airbnb aired the most pro-immigrant, anti-Trump refugee ban commercial.  The copy: 

“No matter who you are, where you're from, who you love, who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

Additionally, in a pointed stance against the President’s policy, Airbnb offered to pay for refugee housing if need be:

Frank Luntz:

"The message here of 'bring us together' was very powerful and focus group participants appreciated it.”

Ads that Return on Investment

Personally, I’m a big ROI fan. To date the single best example of a Super Bowl commercial delivering on its investment is the Apple advertisement in 1984 for the new Macintosh Computer.  It only ran once, and helped create the mystique that built Steve Jobs and the Apple brand:

Along those lines, you might say that FOX News won the day with Bill O’Reilly’s sound bite in his interview with President Trump that aired during the Super Bowl: “Putin’s a killer.”  Trump: We got a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”


Listen to the pundits, the Republicans, AND, how Russian Television is utilizing O’Reilly’s clip: 

In the end, the game went into overtime, giving FOX the opportunity to run more $5 Million :30 spots (Yes! that was pre-negotiated despite there never having been an overtime Super Bowl 50 times before.) The ratings were the lowest in four years, sinking to an average viewership of 111.3 million, down from the high of 114.5 million sets of eyeballs in 2015 (Patriots v. Seahawks.) Ultimate irony: Lady Gaga garnered higher ratings and viewership than the football game itself.

As with all things in America today, one shows up for the competition but stays for the controversy and the flashy lady singing in the sky.