It’s Super Bowl Sunday, the day when the advertising industry is not only tolerated but celebrated. And as in years past, brands have paid millions of dollars for the opportunity to make consumers laugh, cry and reach for their wallets.
While it may take away some of the surprise, the vast majority of Super Bowl ads have already been made available online. The advertisers for Super Bowl LIII seem to be determined to steer clear of controversy for a second year after politically tinged spots stole the show in 2017.
Instead, they are offering commercials that champion women, inspire nostalgia for the ’90s and promote philanthropic efforts — accompanied, of course, by a parade of celebrities. Cameos include Serena Williams, John Legend, Cardi B and the Backstreet Boys.
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“It seems like there’s an awful lot of humor and light appeals, and that for advertisers it’s somewhat of a play-it-safe year,” said Charles R. Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova University School of Business. “We’re not hearing about anything crossing over in politics.”
The talk about trouble for the TV business has never extended to the Super Bowl, where the average cost of a 30-second spot climbed to a cool $5.2 million last year, according to Kantar Media. It is roughly the same this year. That figure rose by 96 percent in the previous decade, while the average rate for other prime-time ads fell by 12 percent, according to the firm. More than 100 million people are expected to watch the CBS telecast.
Tech giants are looming large this year. That includes Amazon, which will have a Super Bowl ad for the fourth time.
This year, Amazon is showing a trailer for a new show called “Hanna” on its Prime streaming service and another ad for its Alexa devices. The latter included celebrities like Harrison Ford, Forest Whitaker and the “Broad City” stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.
Amazon, which ran its first Super Bowl ad in 2016, has become a big presence as its overall marketing spending has increased. Last year, the company was one of the game’s five biggest advertisers for the first time, according to Kantar, on a list that included Anheuser-Busch, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and Procter & Gamble.
Last year, Amazon raised its ad spending in the United States by about 73 percent, Kantar said, outspending companies like General Motors, Verizon and L’Oréal.
“Their presence makes a lot of sense to me,” said Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Their target is probably a massive portion of everyone watching.”
On a somewhat related note, The Washington Post said on Friday that it made a last-minute decision to run a spot in the fourth quarter. The ad, narrated by Tom Hanks, will “highlight reporters’ work and the importance of press freedom,” Fred Ryan, the newspaper’s publisher, said in a statement. The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive.
Strong women and a push against stereotypes
Bumble, the dating app that requires women to message potential matches first, is running its first Super Bowl ad, which featured the tennis star Serena Williams urging women to “make the first move” in all areas of their lives. Toyota’s commercial chronicles the unexpected path of a football player named Antoinette Harris, and compared her journey to one of its vehicles, which it said “will shatter perceptions.”
“The female empowerment theme this year is very real,” Professor Taylor said. “That doesn’t mean it’s overwhelming — there’s still more ads with male lead characters and still more male celebrities — but I think it’s narrowed a little bit.”
More than a whiff of ’90s nostalgia
Did you love “I Know What You Did Last Summer”? How about the Backstreet Boys? “Sex and the City”?
Who knew a night of football could bring all of that back!
The Backstreet Boys — whose oldest member is only a few years away from 50 — joined Chance the Rapper for a Doritos commercial that remixed the group’s song “I Want It That Way.” Sarah Jessica Parker took a turn as the cocktail-loving Carrie Bradshaw in an ad for Stella Artois, which also featured Jeff Bridges as the Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” Sarah Michelle Gellar appeared in an unexpected spot that reprised “I Know What You Did Last Summer” to sell Olay skin cream. And the actress Christina Applegate, known for the sitcom “Married With Children,” appeared in an ad for M&Ms.
“There’s a lot of cross-generational appeal with the Backstreet Boys,” said Jennifer Saenz, chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America, which is owned by PepsiCo. “They were relevant a decade ago and still relevant today.”
In the Super Bowl host city, Pepsi erected billboards and put out recycling bins while “trying to paint Atlanta blue,” according to Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of Pepsi’s North American beverage unit. The city is home to Coca-Cola, but Pepsi’s signage sought to remind people that its brand was the “official soft drink of Super Bowl LIII.”
Playing it safe
Advertisers largely seemed to be avoiding anything remotely controversial — perhaps seeking to learn from years past.
Last year, Ram trucks faced criticism after it used a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the voice-over for its Super Bowl ad. The timing didn’t help, considering one story line last season was about N.F.L. players who sat or knelt during the national anthem to draw attention to racial oppression and police brutality against black Americans.
Two years ago, after the presidential election, Airbnb and 84 Lumber ran spots that were viewed as responses to President Trump’s stance on immigration.
This year, advertisers sought to tie themselves to social causes. Budweiser, for example, highlighted its efforts in renewable energy in a spot that featured a charming dog, the beverage company’s Clydesdales and the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” And Verizon, for a second year, put a spotlight on emergency workers.
One brand appeared to seek attention by creating an ad it claimed was too racy for CBS — a tried-and-true strategy for many previous advertisers. Devour, a maker of frozen meals, riffed on the concept of “food porn” for its spot, with a girlfriend discussing her boyfriend’s addiction to tantalizing footage of frozen food. Ultimately, Devour released a more saucy version of its ad online and one that was deemed appropriate for television.
Still, the family-approved version may lead to some questions from the children in the room.