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Corporate America Swings from Sobs to Silence in This Year’s Super Bowl

Image Credit: Coca-Cola/YouTube

It was a sad Super Bowl. Sad, as only Trump can say it. Saaad. One minute I had a cunning, fast-talking clown trying to sell me stuff in true ad-land fashion. The next, I felt emotionally mistreated by a sobbing stranger playing curling with my heart. Corporate America appeared not to care at all — and if it did, it cared too much — which is exactly the problem. Of four quarters of fast-paced commercials only around 10 aimed for something bigger than product plugging. What happened to a sense of purpose, or is it now just products first?

Values first, America first, products first?

The value war from last year’s event seems to have run out of steam, or perhaps brands wanted to stick to safe ground and steer away from politics. The choice seemed simple: Stand up for what you wholeheartedly believe in or stay silent. Most companies conveniently chose to do the latter. In doing so, they turned their backs on the all-important conversations and topics that need support more than ever: diversity, immigration, climate — some of the biggest challenges of our time. As they say, “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM!”

Of course, the easy option is to turn your back on wrongdoing or injustice. But please don’t pull the non-partisan excuse — for me speaking up is not about politics, it’s about defending basic values and human rights.

Toyota was one of the few who dared to speak up with a series of three commercials touting its mobility efforts,, and the importance of inclusion and diversity. Good on you — I enjoyed at least one (“The Woolstencroft”) of the three executions.

What happened with the truly great Goodvertising work?

Staying silent is not my only (veggie) beef with the Super Bowl this year. Why is it still so difficult for brands to get Goodvertising right? It’s like their only known trick is to play on our heartstrings, but their love ballads are about as believable as a used car salesman’s smile. We’re here to watch an exciting game and have fun with friends — so why all the sobbing?

With its commercial, “#LittleOnes,” T-mobile succeeded in makings its message about equality and babies as heartwarming as the horror movie Chucky. Who manages to mess up babies? Maybe they meant to label it #LittleScaryOnes?

Normally recognised for its brilliant, emotive and well-written work, Stella Artois, together with, aimed for complete compassion fatigue with a dreary cause-marketing approach to provide drinking water for every ridiculous-looking French beer glass sold (sorry, read: chalice). Cheers to ingenuity.

Another brand that went the cause-marketing route was Hyundai, with its “Hope Detector” ad, in which it thanks its customers for helping fund childhood cancer research through the purchase of Hyundai vehicles. A great cause, but it felt like Hyundai was thanking itself on behalf of its drivers; thank me very much! I want to thank Hyundai for continuing its efforts from last year’s Super Bowl in supporting the troops, but aren’t we missing a big opportunity to make a difference with some truly great work?

Some other highlights

That said, I want to recognise Budweiser for its timely and well-executed message. “Stand by You” featured a fight for people in need. With beer cans transformed into containers of water, the end shot brought it home nicely.

Verizon went in a similar direction with “Answering the Call,” in which it expressed thanks to first responders — hardly a message one can disagree with, regardless of political view.

A new entrant this year was bargain site Groupon, with “Who Wouldn’t” claiming to support local businesses — always a popular message, and at least they tried a more humorous approach, but I can’t help but wonder how sustainable the discount model is for the local businesses involved in the long term? 

I care, sometimes

On a happier note, Coca-Cola continued its diversity efforts from last year with “The Wonder of Us”: applaudable, especially set against the silence of the others.

If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, it requires more than just a one-off. But many of last year’s Goodvertising trumpeting brands have gone silent. What happened to Kia's fight for the climate? Or Airbnb’s commitment to diversity? Or Expedia? Or Audi’s cry for empowering women? With this year’s Super Bowl, corporate America had every chance to prove it wants to be part of the solution, and show its purpose goes further than the green writing on the CEO’s coffee mug. Unlike the sudden blackout during the game, there is no technical excuse for not taking a stand. So, dear corporate America, why so silent? 

 Thomas Kolster is the author of the book “Goodvertising”; the most comprehensive book to date exploring communication for good. As the Director of the Goodvertising Agency, he’s helping companies, non-profits and agencies understand this new reality. This year Thomas founded WhereGoodGrows; the world’s first… [Read more about Thomas Kolster]

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