Super Bowl LII — through the NFL-controlled moments and many top ads — made a Herculean effort to re-inspire and unify Americans feeling battered by divisive politics and polarizing public discourse. The NFL memo: This Super Bowl must deliver the warm and fuzzies by celebrating heroes and our common humanity.
And, for good reason. The League’s been taking hits lately, with viewership down more than 5% this year. It’s probable fallout from the duel controversies of players protesting racial and social injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem and the troubling science linking extensive brain damage to concussions.
The NFL took a preemptive strike by rolling out an ongoing player/owner committee, Players Coalition, highlighting and funding social justice efforts. It also opened the game with apple pie symbols of heroism and unity:
It seems the advertisers got the “feel good” memo, too, generally taking few risks. With a 30-second spot costing $5 million to air, plus the money to create it and promote it bringing some campaigns to $10 million, there was no room for divisiveness.
Of the many ads designed to bring us together and inspire us, a theme emerged: Unsung Heroes & Unity. (Many of the rest fell into the standby Super Bowl ad category, Quirky Humor [M & M’s, E*Trade, Sprint, Doritos/Mountain Dew, Amazon Alexa]. Others hit four benign themes: Nostalgia [Pepsi, NFL’s “Dirty Dancing,” Kia, Justin Timberlake’s half-time performance]; Babies & Animals [Santander, Yellowtail, T-Mobile]; Home & Hearth [Kraft]; and Movies/TV Shows [Jurassic Island, Solo, The Voice]).
The first spot of the night set the tone for big brands celebrating the unifying heroes among us. Mass Mutual’s “Unsung,” set to “I’ll Stand By You,” headlined various acts of kindness by everyday people including, "Synagogue welcomes Muslims after mosque attacked" and "Woman invites homeless man to live with her family."
Toyota’s “One Team” was all about “Kumbaya,” promoting religious tolerance. It featured a priest, rabbi, imam and Buddhist monk in a Toyota Tundra headed to a football game, clearly unified by their love of football.
A spate of uplifting winter Olympic ads were hero-focused, from NBC’s on-air promo of American downhill skier Lindsey Vonn to Toyota’s against-the-odds life journey of paralympian gold medalist Lauren Woolstencroft.
Verizon’s “Answering the Call” paid homage to the unheralded everyday heroes, first responders, who have been front and center during recent disasters. The spot featured emotional phone reunions between real people and the first responders who saved them.
Several brands celebrated their inner hero through their charitable efforts. A Bud spot, set to “Stand By Me,” featured real employees as heroes as they switched beer production to water production, providing three million cans of water to the victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.
Hyundai made the customer the hero. “Hope Detector” showed the beneficiaries of its pediatric cancer nonprofit organization, Hyundai Hope on Wheels, giving thanks to Hyundai customers. You’re a hero because contributing to this worthy cause “…comes standard with every Hyundai.”
In keeping with its goal of providing 3.5 million people with access to clean water by 2020, Stella Artois made its Super Bowl presence about water.org. During shots of running water, Matt Damon explained, "Millions of people in the developing world walk up to six hours every day for water.” While holding a limited-edition glass, he added, “This chalice can change that. If just 1% of you watching this buys one, we can give clean water to one million people for five years.”
Also noteworthy, Hip-hop star Pras’s teaser for the launch of the media brand Blacture, a “platform for black culture in America.”Standing onstage in an empty theater, he removed a tape with X’s on it covering his mouth. This resolved to: “Be celebrated. Not tolerated.”
Two of these “feel our shared humanity” ads created some online controversy. Ram marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by using the voiceover of MLK’s last speech in 1968. It paired the uplifting sermon with moments of human greatness and service, interspersed with beauty shots of their trucks. Social media critics felt Ram had appropriated MLK to shill for trucks.
T- Mobile went the most political, showing babies of all races while Kerry Washington’s voiceover promoted equal rights, pay equality, and loving “who you want." It ended with the onscreen message: “Change Starts Now. Are You With Us?” Many conservatives were rankled by it.
The Super Bowl may have made headway in uniting Americans by orchestrating the tone and heroic themes during the “entertainment” parts of the game. But the uncontrollable game itself may have improved the cultural zeitgeist of the country even more. Given one of the goals of the Big Game was to instill a sense of hope, even when the odds are stacked against you, then it was fitting that the underdog Eagles won the championship.