Super Bowl commercials
The U.S. television broadcast of the Super Bowl – the championship game of the National Football League (NFL) – features many high-profile television commercials, colloquially known as Super Bowl ads. The phenomenon is a result of the game's extremely high viewership and wide demographics: Super Bowl games have frequently been among the United States' most watched television broadcasts, with Nielsen having estimated that Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was seen by at least 114.4 million viewers in the United States, surpassing the previous year's Super Bowl as the highest-rated television broadcast in U.S. history. As such, advertisers have typically used commercials during the Super Bowl as a means of building awareness for their products and services among this wide audience, while also trying to generate buzz around the ads themselves so they may receive additional exposure, such as becoming a viral video.
Super Bowl commercials have become a cultural phenomenon of their own alongside the game itself; many viewers only watch the game to see the commercials, national surveys (such as the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter) judge which advertisement carried the best viewer response, and CBS has aired yearly specials since 2000 chronicling notable commercials from the game. Super Bowl advertisements have become iconic and well-known because of their cinematographic quality, unpredictability, surreal humor, and use of special effects. The use of celebrity cameos has also been common in Super Bowl ads. A number of major brands, including Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Doritos, GoDaddy and Master Lock, have been well known for making repeated appearances during the Super Bowl.
The prominence of airing a commercial during the Super Bowl has also carried an increasingly high price: the average cost of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl has ranged from $37,500 at Super Bowl I, to around $2.2 million at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, and by Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, had doubled to around $4.5 million. The cost of advertising during the Super Bowl has reached a point that some companies may not be able to recoup their costs from the resulting revenue. Some commercials airing during, or proposed to air during the game, have also attracted controversy due to the nature of their content.
Super Bowl commercials are largely limited to the United States' broadcast of the game. Complaints about the inability to view the ads are prevalent in Canada, where federal "simsub" regulations require pay television providers to replace U.S. feeds of programs with domestic feeds if they are being broadcast at the same time as a Canadian television station. In 2016, Canada's telecom regulator enacted a policy to forbid the use of simsub during the Super Bowl, citing viewer complaints and a belief that these ads were an "integral part" of the game. These actions have been challenged by the NFL and the Super Bowl's current Canadian rightsholder, Bell Media, for devaluing the company's exclusive Canadian broadcast rights to the game, and violating Canada's Broadcasting Act by singling out a specific program.
- 1 Benefits
- 2 Cost
- 3 Notable Super Bowl commercials
- 4 Controversial Super Bowl commercials
- 4.1 Focus on the Family pro-life ad
- 4.2 General Motors: "Robot"
- 4.3 Ashley Madison and ManCrunch
- 4.4 Randall Terry anti-abortion ad
- 4.5 Chrysler: "Halftime in America"
- 4.6 SodaStream
- 4.7 Coca-Cola: "It's Beautiful"
- 4.8 Nationwide Insurance: "Boy"
- 4.9 84 Lumber: "The Journey"
- 4.10 GNC: "Courage to Change"
- 5 Internationally
- 6 References
Super Bowl games have frequently been among the United States' most watched television broadcasts; Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 set an all-time record for viewership at the game, with an average of 114.4 million viewers according to Nielsen, exceeding a record set the previous year at Super Bowl XLVIII (112.2 million). Of the top twenty television broadcasts in the United States by viewership, only one program—"Goodbye, Farewell and Amen", the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H—was not a Super Bowl, ranking in between Super Bowl XLIII (98.7 million) and XLIV (106.6 million) with 106 million viewers. The game broadcast not only attracts a wide audience, but a diverse audience spanning many demographics and age groups, and women have accounted for at least 40% of Super Bowl viewers. As such, airing a commercial during the Super Bowl can be valuable for advertisers seeking an audience for their products and services.
Because of the overall buzz surrounding them, commercials aired during the Super Bowl receive additional airplay and exposure outside of the game as well, such as during newscasts and morning shows. Since 2000, CBS has aired an annual television special prior to the game, Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials, which showcases notable Super Bowl ads from prior games, and in recent years, has allowed viewers to vote for their favorite Super Bowl ads to be featured during it. Many viewers watch the Super Bowl only for the commercials: in 2015, Dish Network went as far as allowing the "Primetime Anytime" and "AutoHop" features on its Hopper digital video recorder, which automatically records primetime programs from the major networks and trims commercials from the recordings, to function in reverse and allow users to view a recording of the Super Bowl that skips over the game itself and only shows the commercials.
The popularity of video sharing websites such as YouTube have also allowed Super Bowl advertisements to become viral videos; to take advantage of this, a growing number of advertisers have elected to post previews of their commercial, or even the full-length commercial, online prior to the game. A notable example of this strategy occurred at Super Bowl XLV: on February 2, 2011, four days prior to the game, Volkswagen posted the full version of its Star Wars-themed ad "The Force" on YouTube. By Sunday, the ad had already received over 16 million views, and went on to be the most shared Super Bowl advertisement ever. Ironically, until Super Bowl 50, official online streams of the Super Bowl provided by U.S. broadcasters did not include all of the commercials from the television broadcast; at Super Bowl XLIX, only 18 advertisers bought ad time within NBC's stream of the game (although NBC did post all of the ads on a Tumblr blog throughout the game). At Super Bowl 50, CBS mandated that each advertiser's purchase cover both the television and digital broadcasts, meaning that for the first time, the online stream of Super Bowl 50 provided by CBS included all national commercials from the television broadcast.
Owing to the large potential audience, the network broadcasting the Super Bowl can also charge a premium on advertising time during the game. A thirty-second commercial at Super Bowl I in 1967 cost US$37,500. By contrast, Super Bowl XLVI set what was then a record for the price of a Super Bowl advertisement, selling 58 spots (including those longer than 30 seconds) during the game, generating $75 million USD for NBC; the most expensive advertisement sold for $5.84 million. Super Bowl XLVII and Super Bowl XLVIII both set the average cost of a 30-second commercial at $4 million. Super Bowl XLIX, also broadcast by NBC, surpassed that record with a base price of $4.5 million. Media executives projected that the cost of a 30-second commercial could exceed $5 million at Super Bowl 50, a figure that CBS confirmed and Fox would later match for Super Bowl LI. Super Bowl LI would also, for the first time in the game's history, feature overtime play; four ads were broadcast between the end of regulation and the start of play, including two ads seen earlier in the game, and two ads that were sold for and also seen during the post-game show. While Fox had negotiated ad sales for overtime in the event it were to occur, it is unknown whether the network charged a premium on top of the base cost.
The high cost of purchasing advertising time, on top of the cost of producing the commercial itself, has led to concerns by marketers that the increased sales that can result from a Super Bowl commercial does not recoup the cost of buying the ad time. Some advertisers, including Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, General Motors and Pepsi, chose to skip recent Super Bowls due to the high costs of advertising—although Pepsi would return in 2013, followed by GM in 2014. As a lower-cost alternative, some advertisers have elected to purchase advertising time during the games' extended pre-game shows (which, during Super Bowl XLVIII, ranged from $100,000 to $2 million), or from individual network affiliates that are broadcasting it.
Notable Super Bowl commercials
Many Super Bowl advertisements have become iconic and well-known because of their quality, unpredictability, humor, and use of special effects. In recent years, advertisers have also attempted to stand out from others by producing ads with cinematographic qualities, and ads that channel emotions and real-world issues. The use of celebrity cameos has also been common in Super Bowl ads, ranging from then-unknown personalities, to unexpected combinations of celebrities, such as a 2007 CBS network promo for Late Show that featured David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey—whom Letterman had conflicts with following a joke directed at her during the 67th Academy Awards, and a 2010 sequel that also included Jay Leno (the former host of its competitor, The Tonight Show, who was slated to return to the program following a publicized conflict between NBC and Conan O'Brien).
Several notable commercials aired during Super Bowl games during the 1970s. In 1973, lotion brand Noxzema aired a commercial starring Farrah Fawcett and quarterback Joe Namath, featuring Namath being literally "creamed" by Fawcett. Later in the decade, Fawcett would become better known for her role on the television series Charlie's Angels.
At Super Bowl XI in 1977, Xerox aired an advertisement entitled "Monks"; starring Jack Eagle as Brother Dominic—a monk discovering that he could create copies of a manuscript using a new Xerox photocopier. The advertisement was so well received that Brother Dominic became the mascot of Xerox for years afterward. Xerox premiered a new version of "Monks" in January 2017 (although not as a Super Bowl ad), which updated the premise of the original ad to feature the company's modern products.Y&R New York's CEO Leslie Sims described "Monks" as being the "first viral ad", explaining that it "was the first commercial that got people to request to see it again on TV".
Master Lock: "Tough Under Fire"
Among the most prominent of campaigns during early Super Bowl games were those of Master Lock. In 1965, the company had first ran a television commercial demonstrating the strength of its padlocks, by having a person shoot it with a handgun in a failed attempt to breach it. The campaign was pulled after the company's advertising director, Edson F. Allen, realized the stunt could be imitated by those who were unsure over the commercial's authenticity. By the 1970s, Allen discussed the possibility of reviving the concept, but using a rifle rather than a handgun to make it harder to imitate. The resulting commercial would premiere in 1974 during Super Bowl VIII; despite concerns by the staff of Master Lock and their agency, Campbell Mithun, over the content of the ad, the commercial was well received by the general public.
When Cramer-Krasselt took over as Master Lock's agency later in the year, the company decided to make the gun ads a tradition, and began to produce new ads themed around the concept (including one featuring skeptics of previous editions of the ad, and one showcasing the company's major corporate clients) for future Super Bowls during the subsequent decades (aside from a brief hiatus in 1986 and 1987), and the early 1990s. Allen went as far as describing the ads as an "event" that continued to attract media attention after the game. The Super Bowl ads helped improve Master Lock's market share; from 1973 through 1994, sales had increased from $35 million per year to $200 million per year. Master Lock's yearly Super Bowl commercials accounted for nearly all of the company's annual advertising budget.
At Super Bowl XIV in 1980, Coca-Cola aired an advertisement popularly known as "Hey Kid, Catch!", featuring Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro defensive lineman "Mean Joe" Greene being offered a Coca-Cola by a young fan—played by Tommy Okon, drinking it in one sip, and tossing the kid his game-worn jersey as repayment. The advertisement was filmed in 1979 and premiered that October, but did not gain mainstream attention until its airing during Super Bowl XIV. "Hey Kid, Catch!" became one of Greene's most famous roles; the ad would win a Clio Award, spawn a made-for-TV movie on NBC entitled The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid, and be re-made for other markets with local athletes. In a 2011 poll by Advertising Age, readers named "Hey Kid, Catch!" as the best Super Bowl commercial of all-time.
The ad also became the subject of parodies on television series, such as The Simpsons, and in other ads. At Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Coca-Cola aired a parody of the ad for its Coca-Cola Zero brand starring Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. Continuing an ongoing theme in the promotion of Coke Zero, the ad was interrupted by a Coca-Cola "brand manager" accusing Polamalu of "stealing" their commercial; in response, Polamalu tackled him and ripped off his shirt to give to the child. In 2012, Procter & Gamble aired a parody of the ad entitled "Stinky". The ad saw Greene reprise his role, but having the young fan throw Downy Unstoppables fabric softener to Greene instead of Coca-Cola, and the fan rejecting his jersey because it smelled. In 2016, Joe Greene was reunited with Okon as part of a segment for CBS's Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials special.
Coca-Cola has also used the Super Bowl for other campaigns: in 2009, the company aired new ads as part of its recently introduced Open Happiness campaign. In 2014, the company aired the multiculturalism-themed ad "It's Beautiful", which featured scenes of Americans of various races and ethnicities, including the first ever same-sex couple featured in a Super Bowl commercial. However, the ad attracted controversy due to its use of a multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful" as its soundtrack. In 2015, the company aired ad entitled "#makeithappy"; themed around cyberbullying, the ad featured negative comments directed towards a teen being transformed into positive messages after a technician accidentally spills a bottle of Coca-Cola on a server.
At Super Bowl XVIII, Apple Computer broadcast an advertisement for its Macintosh computer entitled "1984", created by the agency Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott. The advertisement, which incorporated elements inspired by the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, featured a woman wearing track-and-field clothing (including orange pants and a white shirt branded with an image of the Macintosh) sprinting into a large auditorium and hurling a large hammer into a screen (displaying a large Big Brother-like figure speaking to a massive assembly of drone-like people in the audience), concluding with the message "On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won’t be like '1984.'" The advertisement received critical acclaim from both viewers and critics alike for helping position the Macintosh as a unique entry into the personal computer market, and is often considered to be one of the best Super Bowl advertisements of all-time.
The ad first aired nationally during Super Bowl XVIII. As the agency wanted "1984" to be eligible for that year's industry awards, which were only open to ads that aired during 1983, a low-profile premiere of the ad occurred on the Twin Falls, Idaho station KMVT on December 31, 1983 shortly before midnight. Apple attempted to follow up "1984" the following year with a new ad entitled "Lemmings", to promote its Macintosh Office system. The ad, which featured blindfolded businessmen walking over the edge of a cliff in unison, was criticized for its "dark" theme and exaggerated premise. By contrast, "Lemmings" has been considered to be one of Apple's worst television advertisements.
The beer brand Budweiser held a long-term contract with the NFL that allowed it to buy several slots of air time from the game's broadcaster each year at a steep discount; the contract ran through Super Bowl 50. It thus runs several advertising campaigns throughout each game, one of which has traditionally featured the Budweiser Clydesdales. Budweiser's parent company Anheuser-Busch has been the most successful advertiser in the annual Super Bowl Ad Meter survey organized by USA Today, winning the survey fourteen times in its 27-year history. When the newspaper held an "All-Time Ad Meter" bracket tournament in 2014, two Budweiser commercials met in the finals; the winner was a 2008 ad spoofing Rocky, which went against its 1999 ad "Separated at Birth", which featured a pair of Dalmatian puppies given to two separate owners, but eventually seeing each other again after one became a mascot dog on the Clydesdales' carriage.
As of 2015, Budweiser had won the survey thirteen times in fifteen years; its 2013 advertisement entitled "Brotherhood" focused on the relationship and emotional reunion of a clydesdale with its original trainer three years after leaving to become a Budweiser Clydesdale. Prior to the game, Budweiser also invited users to vote via Twitter on a name for the new foal that would be featured in the ad. A 2014 ad entitled "Puppy Love" featured a similar reunion between an adopted dog and another Budweiser Clydesdale. Its most recent victory and its third in a row, 2015's "Lost Dog", featured a dog being rescued from a wolf by the Clydesdales.
In 2017, Budweiser broadcast "Born the Hard Way", an ad which dramatized Anheuser-Busch co-founder Adolphus Busch's emigration to the United States from Germany to establish the company. The advertisement attracted controversy among supporters of U.S. president Donald Trump for being pro-immigration, in the wake of an executive order issued by Trump which briefly restricted entry into the country by residents of several countries with predominant Muslim populations. A boycott effort also emerged among Trump supporters. Anheuser-Busch denied that the ad was meant to be a political message, as it had been in production for the past year, and that it was meant to "highlight the ambition of our founder, Adolphus Busch, and his unrelenting pursuit of the American dream." Barring a brief appearance, the Clydesdales were not prominently featured during the ad, but Budweiser's social media outlets promoted a live stream of the Clydesdales watching the game in a stable and waiting to see their cameo.
Budweiser has introduced other campaigns during the Super Bowl as well. During Super Bowl XXIII, Budweiser aired an episodic series of commercials known as the Bud Bowl—which featured a football game between stop motion-animated beer bottles representing Budweiser and Bud Light, with commentary by Bob Costas and Paul Maguire. Proving popular, the Bud Bowl would return at subsequent Super Bowls; it had become so popular that some viewers actually wagered on the outcome of the Bud Bowl as if it were an actual event. In 1995, Budweiser introduced the first of a series of ads featuring a group of three frogs named Bud, Weis, and Er. The frog ads were a major success for the brewery after the game, and ranked as one of its most popular advertising campaigns following its premiere.
Anheuser-Busch has aired commercials for other beer brands during the game alongside Budweiser, such as Budweiser Black Crown, and Beck's Sapphire. At Super Bowl LI, the company also re-launched Busch, and broadcast a Bud Light ad featuring the ghost of its former dog mascot Spuds MacKenzie.
Chrysler, and the marques of its current parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, have made repeated appearances during the Super Bowl. From 2011 through 2014, Chrysler became known for running several notable long-form ads; at Super Bowl XLV, Chrysler aired a two-minute long ad entitled "Born of Fire" to launch the Chrysler 200 and the company's new slogan "Imported from Detroit". The ad featured scenes depicting the history and revitalization of Detroit, as well as local rapper Eminem and his song "Lose Yourself". The ad was critically acclaimed, and won a Creative Arts Emmy Award for "Best Commercial" in 2011.
During Super Bowl XLVI, Chrysler broadcast "Halftime in America", a two-minute long commercial directed by David Gordon Green, written by poet Matthew Dickman and narrated by actor Clint Eastwood. The commercial recounted the automotive industry crisis of 2008–10, set to scenes showing Americans in despair, but then in hope. The narration of the ad equated the emergence from the crisis to the second half of a football game, explaining that "All that matters now is what’s ahead: how do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines." The ad was heavily viewed online after the game, receiving over 4 million views on YouTube within 36 hours, but also attracted controversy due to its political overtones.
During Super Bowl 50, the company focused exclusively on its SUV brand Jeep. At Super Bowl LI, the company similarly focused exclusively on Alfa Romeo, as part of a campaign to re-launch the Fiat-owned brand in the United States.
The Dot-com Super Bowl
Super Bowl XXXIV (2000) became notable for featuring a large number of commercials from dot-com companies, to the extent that critics dubbed it the "Dot-com Super Bowl". With a 30-second ad costing around $2.2 million, 20% of the commercial time sold went to dot-com companies—constituting $44 million of the $130 million spent in total on Super Bowl advertising time that year. Despite their aspirations and the boosts in traffic they received from the ads, all of the publicly held companies which advertised saw their stocks slump after the game as the dot-com bubble began to rapidly deflate. Some of the companies that advertised during the game—including Epidemic Marketing and Pets.com, had become defunct by the end of the year, and at Super Bowl XXXV, only three dot-com companies—E-Trade, HotJobs, and Monster.com—advertised during the game.
Notable dot-com ads broadcast during the game included "If You Leave Me Now", an ad for Pets.com which introduced the website's iconic sock puppet mascot, a self-proclaimed "worst commercial on the Super Bowl" by LifeMinder.com that consisted only of text captions on a yellow background with "Chopsticks" playing in the background, and "Monkey"—a deliberately nonsensical E-Trade ad that featured a monkey dancing to "La Cucaracha", and the tagline "Well, we just wasted $2,000,000. What are you doing with your money?" Electronic Data Systems also aired an ad during the game that featured cowboys who herded cats instead of cows.
In 2006, Doritos began holding a promotion known as Crash the Super Bowl, soliciting viewers to film their own Doritos commercials to possibly be aired during the game. At Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, an additional bonus prize of $1 million was added if any of the winning entries were named #1 on the Super Bowl Ad Meter survey results; Doritos would reach the #1 spot on the survey that year with an ad entitled "Free Doritos", created by Joe and Dave Herbert of Batesville, Indiana. The ad featured an office worker attempting to fulfill a prediction that he would receive free Doritos by smashing open a vending machine with a crystal ball.
The following year, additional prizes of $600,000 and $400,000 were added for reaching second and third place on the poll, plus an additional $1 million bonus for each if three of the ads were to sweep the top three. A 2010 finalist, "UnderDog", reached second place on the poll.
Another user-submitted Doritos ad, "The Cowboy Kid", finished in second place on the Ad Meter survey in 2014, winning $50,000. The contest itself was won by "Time Machine"; created by Ryan Thomas Andersen of Arizona and produced on a budget of only $300, the ad featured his son scamming his neighbor into giving him his bag of Doritos by claiming that he had built a time machine that was fueled by them. For winning the contest, Anderson received $1 million and an opportunity to work on set during the production of the film Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The domain registrar and web hosting company GoDaddy was well known for producing Super Bowl commercials featuring female spokespersons it dubbed "GoDaddy Girls", such as professional driver Danica Patrick, and for its 2011 ad, comedian Joan Rivers. Many of the company's planned Super Bowl ads were allegedly rejected by broadcasters due to their risqué subject matter, leading to GoDaddy instead airing a "teaser" ad during the game that instructed viewers to watch the uncensored version of the ad on their website.
The company's first appearance at Super Bowl XXXIX parodied the "wardrobe malfunction" that had occurred at last year's halftime show, featuring a woman testifying to Congress about why GoDaddy wanted to advertise during the game, but a strap of her tank top coming undone. The ad was scheduled to air twice, but its second airing was pulled in response to concerns by Fox and the NFL over its content. The following year at Super Bowl XL, thirteen ad concepts were rejected by ABC due to their content. In 2008, a GoDaddy ad entitled "Exposure" was rejected by Fox for using the word "beaver" as a double entendre. In turn, the ad was replaced with one advertising the availability of the ad on GoDaddy's website, attracting two million visits. In October 2013, GoDaddy's chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman announced that the company would no longer air provocative ads during the Super Bowl, explaining that "our new brand of Super Bowl commercials will make it crystal clear what we do and who we stand for. We may be changing our approach, but as we've always said, we don't care what the critics think. We are all about our customers."
GoDaddy's ad in 2015, "Journey Home", was controversial for different reasons: it featured a puppy travelling back to its owner after falling out of a pickup truck, only to learn that he had been sold to a new owner using a website built with GoDaddy. The ad was criticized by animal rights groups, who felt that it implied an endorsement of commercial puppy mills. GoDaddy quickly pulled the ad in response to the controversy; GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving explained that the ad's humor had "clearly missed the mark". PETA partially praised the ad for portraying the seller as being a "callous jerk", but explained that "The sale of animals online and from pet stores and breeders should be roundly condemned, and it was today. GoDaddy did the right thing by swiftly promoting adoption."
"Small Business Big Game"
As a byproduct of the increased cost of ad time at the Super Bowl, financial software company Intuit made its debut at Super Bowl XLVIII by hosting a promotion known as "Small Business Big Game", in which small businesses with "inspiring" stories competed for a chance to earn a commercial during the Super Bowl funded by Intuit, as decided by user votes. Company CEO Brad D. Smith explained that the promotion was an extension of the company's goals to improve financial lives "in a way that you'd never imagine going back", while Ken Wach, senior vice president of marketing for Intuit's Small Business Group, explained that "normally you're looking at Budweiser ads or Chevy ads, so this was about putting small businesses on the national stage and shining the spotlight on them as heroes of the economy."
The winner of the 2014 edition was GoldieBlox, a toy company with a focus on promoting mechanical engineering to young girls. While the campaign was a success for the winner, resulting in increased prominence and sales, Wach felt that Intuit was not able to "sustain the momentum as much as we would have liked". At Super Bowl XLIX, Intuit did not hold the promotion, but still aired an ad for its own TurboTax product. The contest returned in 2015 for Super Bowl 50, and was won by Death Wish Coffee.
In order to dodge the high costs of obtaining national ad time, or to broadcast more regionalized campaigns, some advertisers elect to purchase local advertising time from the individual network affiliates airing the Super Bowl, such as the Church of Scientology—who bought local ad time in major urban markets such as New York City in 2014, and the Bank of Montreal to promote its BMO Harris Bank branches. In 2012, Old Milwaukee broadcast a Super Bowl ad starring Will Ferrell; as an extension of the beer's regional campaign with the actor, the ad only aired in the city of North Platte, Nebraska.
In 2014, several notable local ads were broadcast. The Utah Department of Transportation used the game to broadcast a public service announcement on seat belt usage for its Zero Fatalities campaign, which featured a depiction of a child who had died in a rollover crash because he did not use a seat belt. In Savannah, Georgia, local personal injury lawyer Jamie Casino broadcast a two-minute long advertisement on WTGS, which featured a thriller-styled retelling of how he stopped representing "cold-hearted villains" to avenge the 2012 Labor Day shooting death of his brother Michael Biancosino, and Emily Pickels, after a subsequent statement by former police chief Willie Lovett who claimed that there were "no innocent victims", culminating with Casino digging through a grave with a sledgehammer. The ad went viral after the game, with The Independent dubbing it "the most metal Super Bowl advert imaginable." Tribune Broadcasting used local time on the Fox affiliates it owned to air an extended promo for Salem, a then-upcoming series on sister cable network WGN America.
In 2015, Newcastle Brown Ale bought time on local NBC stations to air an ad that, as a commentary on the high cost of national Super Bowl advertising time, contained plugs for 37 other products and companies it had recruited in a crowdfunding campaign. In Savannah, Georgia, Jamie Casino aired a sequel to his 2014 ad that focused on the "bullies" that he had encountered throughout his life.
In 2017, some Canadian companies bought local advertising time from Fox affiliates carried in the country, taking advantage of a new regulatory policy that made the Super Bowl available directly from U.S. stations on local television providers for the first time.
Controversial Super Bowl commercials
A number of Super Bowl commercials have been considered controversial by viewers and critics, or even outright blocked by networks' Standards and Practices departments, because of concerns surrounding their contents. Political advertising and most direct forms of issue-related advertising are usually not aired during the Super Bowl because of equal-time rules or other factors, nor ads for products that the NFL does not allow to be advertised during its telecasts (such as gambling, facilities offering nude performances, and ads for substances prohibited by the league).
Focus on the Family pro-life ad
At Super Bowl XLIV, the non-profit evangelical organization Focus on the Family aired an advertisement featuring then-Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. Prior to becoming pregnant with Tim, and while serving as Baptist missionaries in the Philippines, Pam had contracted amoebic dysentery and fell into a coma. She discovered she was pregnant while recovering. Because of the medications used to treat her, the fetus experienced a severe placental abruption. Doctors expected a stillbirth and recommended an abortion. The Tebows decided against it, citing their strong faith. In the ad, Pam described Tim as a "miracle baby" who "almost didn't make it into this world", and remarked that "with all our family's been through, we have to be tough"—after which she was tackled by Tim. The ad itself made no reference to abortion or Christianity, and directed viewers to the organization's website.
The then-unseen ad drew criticism from some women's rights groups, who asked CBS to pull the ad because they felt it would be divisive. Planned Parenthood released a video response of its own featuring fellow NFL player Sean James. The claim that Tebow's family chose not to perform an abortion was also widely criticized; as abortion is illegal in the Philippines, critics felt that it was implausible that a doctor would recommend the procedure in the first place. CBS's decision to run the ad was also criticized for deviating from its past policy of rejecting issue and advocacy-based commercials during the Super Bowl, including those by left leaning or perceived left leaning groups such as PETA, MoveOn.org and the United Church of Christ (which wanted to run an ad that was pro-same-sex marriage). However, CBS stated that "we have for some time moderated our approach to advocacy submissions after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue."
General Motors: "Robot"
At Super Bowl XLI, General Motors aired a 60-second ad entitled "Robot", which was meant to promote the powertrain warranty it offered for its vehicles. Themed around an "obsession" with quality, the ad depicted an assembly line robot being fired for dropping a screw. After attempting several alternative careers, the robot is depicted committing suicide by rolling off the edge of a bridge into a river. The sequence is interrupted to reveal that the events were just a dream, and that the robot had not been fired at all. Although ranking in ninth place on the Adbowl survey, "Robot" received criticism for its glamorization of suicide; the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) was a notable critic of the spot, as well as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and other suicide prevention groups. The AFSP stated that "the ad, in its carelessness, portrays suicide as a viable option when someone fails or loses their job." Some critics also interpreted the ad's thematics as being in poor taste, as GM had laid off 35,000 factory workers in the previous year.
A GM spokesperson defended the commercial as being "a story of GM's commitment to quality", and stated that this was "the predominant impression by previewers of the ad". GM pulled the original version of the ad from its YouTube page, and edited the ad to remove the suicide scene from future airings.
Ashley Madison and ManCrunch
Avid Life Media, an operator of online dating services, has had two Super Bowl ads rejected by broadcasters. In 2009, NBC rejected an ad for the extramarital dating site Ashley Madison, which featured the tagline "Who Are You Doing After the Game?", from appearing during Super Bowl XLIII. Avid Life Media's CEO Noel Biderman felt the rejection was "ridiculous", noting an apparent double standard of allowing advertisements for alcoholic beverages to air during NFL games despite the number of deaths attributed to them. Biderman considered the NFL demographic to be a core audience of the site, and promised to "find a way to let them know about the existence of this service."
The following year at Super Bowl XLIV, an advertisement for Ashley Madison's sister site ManCrunch—a dating website for homosexual relationships—was rejected by CBS. The ad featured two male football fans reaching into the same bowl of chips, and after a brief pause, passionately kissing and dry humping each other, much to the surprise of another man present. Company spokesperson Elissa Buchter considered the rejection to be discrimination, by contending that CBS would not have objected to the ad had it featured a kiss between a man and a woman, and acknowledging the frequent airplay of advertisements for erectile dysfunction medications on U.S. television as a double standard. Fellow spokesperson Dominic Friesen stated that the company was "very disappointed" of CBS's decision, noting that the network had allowed the aforementioned Focus on the Family ad to air during the game. A New York Post writer felt that their ad was "no more racy than nearly any beer commercial not starring the Budweiser Clydesdales".
Avid Life was also accused of ambush marketing by critics, who argued that the company was intentionally submitting ads that would get rejected by broadcasters and receive free publicity from the ensuing controversy, thus removing the need to actually buy ad time during the game. However, the company denied these claims, and indicated that it did have serious intentions to purchase ad time during the game if its commercials were accepted. In an article posted following the 2015 security breach of Ashley Madison, a former CBS standards & practices employee stated that the ad had actually been rejected for its use of NFL trademarks, and not because of its content.
Randall Terry anti-abortion ad
In 2012, Randall Terry attempted to use a provision in Federal Communications Commission policies requiring "reasonable access" to local advertising time for political candidates within 45 days of an election or primary, to force several NBC stations to air a graphic anti-abortion attack ad during Super Bowl XLVI that featured images of blood-covered fetuses. Following a complaint by the Chicago-based NBC-owned station WMAQ, the FCC ruled that Terry could not expect reasonable access to advertising time during the Super Bowl because of the magnitude of the event and the limited amount of local advertising time available. Furthermore, it was also found that Terry did not show enough evidence that he was a bona fide candidate eligible to receive ad time in the first place.
Chrysler: "Halftime in America"
Chrysler's Super Bowl XLIV ad "Halftime in America" was controversial due to its political overtones, especially as it came during the lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Critics interpreted the ad as being in support of re-electing Barack Obama, due to his support of George W. Bush's bailout of Chrysler whilst acting as a Democratic senator, and that the metaphor of "halftime in America" also symbolized the performance of Obama's first four-year term as president going into his re-election campaign. It was also noted that Eastwood had made statements against the bailouts in 2011, had stated that he "couldn’t recall ever voting for a Democratic presidential candidate", and that he was a supporter of Republican candidate John McCain during the 2008 campaign; Eastwood would later appear as a surprise guest at the 2012 Republican National Convention in support of nominee Mitt Romney, infamously addressing an empty chair meant to represent Obama.
In 2013, SodaStream submitted a Super Bowl advertisement directed by Alex Bogusky, which featured a pair of Coca-Cola and Pepsi deliverymen finding their bottles exploding and disappearing when another person uses the SodaStream to make their own beverages; representing a disruption of the soft drink market. The ad was rejected by CBS for its direct attacks towards the two rival companies. A Forbes writer expressed concern that the network may have had intentionally shown protectionism towards the two soft drink companies (who have been long-time Super Bowl advertisers), and drew comparisons to a recent incident where the CBS-owned technology news site CNET was controversially forced by its parent company to block Dish Network's Hopper with Sling digital video recorder from being considered Best in Show at CES 2013 because the broadcaster was in active litigation over an automatic commercial skipping feature on the device.
An older SodaStream commercial was shown in its place, which also featured exploding pop bottles in a similar fashion, but with no direct references to any other brand; ironically, this particular ad had been banned in the United Kingdom by Clearcast for being considered "a denigration of the bottled drinks market."
Another SodaStream ad featuring Scarlett Johansson was produced for and aired during Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014; the supposed rejection of an initial version for containing the line "Sorry, Coke and Pepsi" was overshadowed by growing controversies around the company's use of a factory that was located in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
Coca-Cola: "It's Beautiful"
In 2014, Coca-Cola aired a Super Bowl advertisement entitled "It's Beautiful"; themed around multiculturalism, the ad featured scenes depicting Americans of various ethnicities, along with a same-sex couple—the first to ever appear in a Super Bowl ad, set to a rendition of the patriotic hymn "America The Beautiful" with lyrics sung in multiple languages.
The ad was divisive, with users taking to Twitter under the hashtag "#SpeakAmerican" to discuss their views and opinions on its content: those against the ad argued that per the melting pot principle, Coca-Cola should not have used languages other than English, the most common language of the country, to promote its products to ethnic minorities, and former Republican Congressman Allen West stated that "If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing 'America the Beautiful' in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come—doggone we are on the road to perdition." By contrast, others praised the ad for celebrating the diversity of American people. Guardian writer Jill Filipovic noted that the company had been increasingly targeting minorities, such as Latino Americans (who are more likely to be heavy drinkers of soft drinks because of their low cost) and drew comparisons to the marketing of cigarettes to women, but that "before we applaud Coke's advertising diversity, we should ask: do we really want Coke to diversify?"
Nationwide Insurance: "Boy"
At Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, after an eight-year hiatus, Nationwide Insurance returned to the game with two new advertisements. The second of these advertisements, "Boy" (also commonly referred to as "Make Safe Happen"), featured a child explaining that he couldn't grow up because he had already died—followed by scenes of an overflowing bathtub (implying drowning), spilled cleaning products (implying poisoning), and a television having fallen off of a wall. The ad was intended to promote Nationwide's child protection campaign Make Safe Happen; operated in partnership with Safe Kids USA and Nationwide Children's Hospital, it aims to draw awareness to deaths caused by preventable household accidents.
Viewers and critics acknowledged that the subject matter of "Boy" was a major contrast to other, upbeat and comedic ads broadcast during Super Bowl XLIX (including Nationwide's second ad, "Invisible Mindy"). Reception towards the ad was overwhelmingly negative; viewers criticized the company via social media for its decision to broadcast an ad dealing with such subject matter during the Super Bowl, Amobee estimated only 12% of reactions to the ad on Twitter were positive, and it ranked near the bottom of the USA Today Ad Meter results. Nationwide CEO Matthew Jauchius defended the ad, noting that the negative response was "a little stronger than we anticipated", and that "Boy" was intended to "begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere."
84 Lumber: "The Journey"
Building supply company 84 Lumber produced its first ever Super Bowl ad for Super Bowl LI. Entitled "The Journey", the ad depicted a mother and daughter migrating from Mexico to the United States border, only to discover that a wall had been built on it. However, after the daughter presented a handmade version of the U.S. flag that she had made with pieces of fabric collected along the way, the two discover a giant door in the wall. The ending of the ad is accompanied by the tagline "The will to succeed is always welcome here."
The original version of the ad was rejected by Fox, as they believed that the border wall imagery was too politically sensitive in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president, whose campaign promises included a plan to build a wall across the entire border. The company's agency stated that it intended to present an edited version of the ad during the game, and promote the full, nearly 6-minute ad, streaming on 84 Lumber's website. The company reported that its website received a total of over 6 million visits in the hour following the airing, and received over 300,000 requests in a minute after the ad aired, causing it to crash.
GNC: "Courage to Change"
On January 31, 2017, it was reported that an advertisement for the health store chain GNC had been rejected by the NFL for broadcast during Super Bowl LI. The ad had been rejected due to the company's inclusion on a list of "prohibited companies" issued by the NFL Players Association; a small number of GNC's products contain DHEA and Synephrine, which are performance-enhancing substances banned by the NFL. Inclusion on this list prohibits NFL players from promoting or endorsing the company. NFL policies do not allow advertising for “dietary or nutritional supplements that contain ingredients other than vitamins and minerals, energy drinks, or any prohibited substance”. Advertisements for health stores are not banned, provided that they do not reference such products. GNC's advertisement featured motivational themes as part of a larger "Courage to Change" marketing campaign, and did not make any references to specific products sold by the chain.
On February 2, 2017, it was reported that GNC had threatened to sue Fox over the rejection. The letter of intent stated that the contents of GNC's commercial had been "expressly approved" twice by Fox, and that the broadcaster did not inform GNC that ads broadcast during the Super Bowl were subject to approval by the NFL or any league policies. The company stated that Fox had "induced GNC to spend millions of dollars in production costs and in the development of a national, coordinated marketing and rebranding campaign centered around this advertisement."
The Super Bowl commercials are generally limited to the American television broadcast of the game. This prevents international viewers from watching the game with these often iconic commercials. Online postings of the commercials on sites such as YouTube have partially alleviated the issue, while NBC posted the Super Bowl XLIX commercials on a Tumblr blog as they aired during the game for the benefit of its U.S. online stream (which did not contain all of the same ads as the television feed).
Complaints about the U.S. Super Bowl ads are common in Canada; although U.S. network affiliates are widely available on pay television providers in the country, "simultaneous substitution" regulations give Canadian television networks the right to request that a U.S. feed of a program be replaced with its Canadian counterpart on these providers if it is airing a program in simulcast with a U.S. network. This rule is intended to protect the investments of Canadian broadcasters in exclusive domestic broadcast rights, and also protect Canadian advertisers who had purchased their own advertising time on the Canadian network. As a result, most American Super Bowl ads are effectively "blacked out" by the Canadian broadcaster. Members of Parliament Bob Nault and Wayne Easter have stated that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's telecom regulator, has only received around 100 specific complaints about Super Bowl ads in relation to the simsub rules.
Some U.S.-based advertisers, particularly PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch (via its Canadian subsidiary Labatt), do buy ad time during the Canadian broadcast on CTV, owned by Bell Media—the broadcasting subsidiary of Canadian telecommunications firm BCE and the current rightsholder of the game, to air at least some of their American commercials, but many Canadian advertisers simply re-air ads from their regular rotation, or air the same ad multiple times over the course of the game, neither of which is typical during the U.S. network broadcast. Reasons cited by Canadian advertisers for these practices include the additional talent and post-production fees that would be required to broadcast the American ads in Canada, and the perceived lower "cultural resonance" of the game for Canadian viewers as opposed to Americans. As such, and because Canada's population is approximately a tenth of the United States's, advertising time costs a fraction of the price to air an ad on the U.S. broadcast: prices ranged between $170,000 to $200,000 for a 30-second slot on CTV's telecast of Super Bowl XLIX.
On the other hand, there have been a growing number of Super Bowl ads produced specifically for the Canadian broadcast: Hyundai's Canadian subsidiary began airing its own Super Bowl ads in 2010, and Budweiser produced the hockey-themed "Flash Fans" to air during the Canadian broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI. The following year, two Canadian companies—BlackBerry and Gildan Activewear, made their debut as U.S. Super Bowl advertisers; their ads were also broadcast in Canada alongside those by McDonalds Canada, who debuted its "Our Food. Your Questions." campaign, Budweiser's internet-enabled hockey goal lights, and Hyundai Canada's "Gaspocalypse", promoting the Sonata Hybrid. Budweiser expanded its goal light campaign for Super Bowl 50, which featured an ad introducing a 20 foot (6.1 m)-tall goal lamp used as part of a promotional campaign leading towards the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Canadian simsub ban, dispute
On January 29, 2015, the CRTC announced a proposal to forbid the invocation of simultaneous substitution on the Super Bowl telecast, thus allowing U.S. feeds of the event to co-exist with those of Canadian rightsholders on pay television providers. The decision came as a result of a series of hearings held by the CRTC known as Let's Talk TV, which explored reforms of the Canadian television industry: the Commission cited viewer frustration over the use of simsubs, especially surrounding the Super Bowl, and argued that the commercials were an "integral part" of the game due to their cultural significance. In March 2015, Bell filed an appeal against this decision, arguing that the move would devalue its exclusive broadcast rights to the game, and violated the Broadcasting Act, which forbids the "making of regulations singling out a particular program or licensee." A report commissioned by Bell estimated that without this lucrative exclusivity, it would lose about US$13.6 million per-year.
In spite of the complaints and legal action, the CRTC issued an order on August 19, 2016 that officially implemented the new rule. On September 6, 2016, the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed Bell Media's lawsuit for being premature, because it was filed before the CRTC had formally implemented the rules. On November 2, 2016, Bell was granted an appeal. In the lead-up to Super Bowl LI (which would be the first game to fall under this policy), a number of stakeholders, including the NFL, Bell Media, local unions. as well as politicians from both Canada and the U.S., called upon the CRTC to reverse the ruling. U.S. senators Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson wrote to an ambassador that the CRTC's decision "sends a troubling signal about the value Canada places on its largest trading partner, best customer and close friend." Bell had also urged prime minister Justin Trudeau to invoke section 26(2) of the Broadcasting Act (which grants the government power to require the broadcasting of programming that is "of urgent importance to Canadians", and had only been invoked once before to mandate the broadcast of a major speech by a Prime Minister) to override the CRTC policy and still require that the Super Bowl LI telecast be subject to simsub.
Court action on the CRTC ruling was not taken in time for the game, meaning that Super Bowl LI was the first to be available through Canadian television providers without being subject to simsub. Neither Nielsen and Numeris (Canada's main television ratings provider) calculate Canadian viewership of U.S. television channels, so it is unknown exactly how many Canadian viewers watched the game directly from Fox stations rather than CTV. Following the game, it was reported that viewership of Super Bowl LI on CTV, in addition to CTV Two and TSN (which simulcast the game in order to increase the saturation of Bell-owned properties carrying it), was down by 39% over Super Bowl 50.
Some Canadian advertisers, such as Leon's and Pizza Pizza, took advantage of the decision by purchasing local ad time from U.S. Fox affiliates carried in Canada, to broadcast commercials aimed at the Canadian audience. The sales manager of Spokane's affiliate KAYU-TV praised the change for helping increase demand for its limited local inventory; the station is carried on cable in the significantly larger Canadian markets of Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta.
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