The Fun, the Bold, the Risky: Super Bowl Ads

The Fun, the Bold, the Risky: Super Bowl Ads

The sustainably focused Kia Niro ad stole the show for laughs in my highly unscientific focus group (the 16 people eating pizza in my living room). It was quick, hilarious and an indirect rip-off of Follow the Frog, which we at Shelton Group have pointed to for years as a benchmark.

When you use humor to highlight the need to take action for the planet, you get to play on traditional imagery/stereotypes of environmental issues and juxtapose that against how unrealistic it would be for most of us to really get out there and fight for radical change. 

Now, that might sound a bit demeaning to the seriousness of our environmental situation, but I’m not trying to be. This approach works. And, after all, that’s what we’re really after, isn’t it?

The truth of the matter is that 99 and some odd percent of people aren’t willing to make drastic changes to their lives to support a cause that isn’t impacting them in an immediate and dramatic fashion. But they may be willing to alter a behavior a bit if they believe it’s for the greater good. Like buying a hybrid over another compact crossover, for instance.

And while I won’t give the Kia team 5 stars for originality, they do get high marks for strategy, production value and effectively using a Super Bowl spend to make a splash for a new offering.

This textbook sustainability execution, however, stood in stark contrast to the brands that openly tackled social/political issues with their messaging. The group included heavyweights such as Coca-Cola and Audi as well as relatively new brands like Airbnb.

In a time when one might expect corporations to walk gingerly around a potentially divided consumer audience, these brands came out swinging. For some brands, this may build loyalty among their demographic (Airbnb, for example). For others there was clear risk.

The two that particularly caught my attention were 84 Lumber and Budweiser. The latter was already feeling a backlash with their pro-legal immigration spot pre-kickoff. Their masterfully produced story of the company founder’s struggle to reach America and start his now household-name business has been greeted with praise, hate and threats of boycott. None of this could have been much of a surprise to such a savvy brand.

84 Lumber, however, goes even farther. They ran what appears to be a pro-illegal immigration ad. To top it off, the ending was so controversial that Fox Sports forced a modification to the estimated $15 million spot. To make it into the evening’s lineup, 84 Lumber had to remove a giant wall from the closing scene. And so, the company drove viewers to a URL (which crashed due to excessive traffic) to see their original vision.

Granted, these spots are not about sustainability, but human rights and environmental protection are becoming more and more intertwined (rising sea levels that displace people are a human rights issue). At Shelton Group, we believe those two issues will become one in the same as environmental issues are swallowed up in the larger topic of health and human safety (spoiler alert, the future of sustainability marketing has a human face).

And while I would point to the Kia Niro spot as a great sustainability advertising execution to consider, I believe the real lesson will come from closely monitoring the fall-out from or support for the ads crafted with bolder intentions.

From a strategic standpoint, I would not have advised Budweiser to take a position that opposes the immigration opinions of 49% of America – particularly given that their core market likely IS that 49%. Nor would I have encouraged 84 Lumber to risk the ire of its target audience with a compelling but controversial statement. But they did, and they weren’t the only ones.

Some would call this boldness foolish; others would call it courageous. It may be both or neither – only time will tell. Regardless, as marketers we need to be watching. If these bold efforts are rewarded, or punished, the implications for how you manage your brand are immediate and obvious. It could be that we are entering a period when the real risk comes from being too cautious.

Image from the 84 Lumber Super Bowl spot

Matt Brass

About Matt Brass

Since joining Shelton Group in 2005, Matt has helped steer the creative department in concepting, designing and producing the agency’s campaigns. As creative director, he ensures sound strategy and deep insights are baked into everything his team develops.

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