Brands' Cautious Super Bowl Approach Reflects Wider Marketing Timidity


This year’s Super Bowl advertising hinged on celebrity star power, humor, and escapism -- and little else.

Brands found themselves navigating attempts to appeal to a wider audience, while not drawing attention to any efforts at greater inclusivity that might result in “woke” accusations from the far right.

Siegel + Gale  Director of Experience Amy Chen didn’t find it surprising that in an election year there were “a lot of brands trying to play it safe,” noting a “huge nostalgia and Americana” trend that “speaks to, as nostalgia often does, creating an uncontroversial safe space."

The result of so many ads playing it so safe, as well as a wash of celebrity appearances, made for “quite a few forgettable ads,” she said. Ads that featured a celebrity in a clever way, like CeraVe’s ad starring Michael Cera, becoming the ones that people talked about.

Merely relying on celebrity appearances can also limit how wide an audience ads appeal to. The ANA’s Alliance For Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) conducted a study on this year’s ads, and found top-performing ones didn’t rely on celeb star power.

“Celebrity ads add instant recognition, but their cultural authenticity and inclusiveness depends on how the storyline is conceived and brought to life.  Additionally, when celebrity ads rely on humor, some segments may find them out of their cultural context, missing the intended punch line, and making them less relatable,” AIMM co-founder Carlos Santiago told CPG Insider.   

When brands did make efforts to better reflect modern audiences in their ads, most were cautious about their approach to inclusion.

“A lot of brands soft-included a little bit of diversity in terms of ads and celebrities,” Chen said.  [In ads] where brands did have representation, it was quite awkward in a way. They were trying so hard to not bring attention to inclusivity.”

According to Santiago, the AIMM study found that there has been progress in on-screen representation, measured broadly, in recent years. There was one big exception: a notable absence of brands running ads with LGBTQ+ storylines or evidence of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Santiago explained marketers may be operating under a belief they need to exclude such segments, following anti-LGBTQ+ attacks last year on brands characterized as “woke” by the far right. Still, there are ways to employ caution without such exclusion, he said.

“Marketers can still be inclusive without creating a whole execution [centering] an LGBTQ story,” he said. “They can be integrated to be a part of the representation that reflects the brand’s consumer base, [within] a storyline that has several consumer groups with shared values that cut across segments. But unfortunately, we’re not seeing many examples of that.”

Brands also largely shied away from environmental and sustainability-focused messaging in their ads, despite a majority of consumers favoring brands addressing such concerns. Samuel Malave, manager, creative insights at Getty Images, cited Getty’s VisualGPS research finding that 71% of American consumers feel it’s important for companies to have ESG guidelines and practices.

“There was a significant decrease in sustainability messaging and references within this year’s Super Bowl ads compared to last year,” Malave said. “Brands may be held back by the fear ofgreenwashing,” he added, “overcorrecting due to the risk of being perceived as inauthentic.”

Rather than avoiding such topics, brands need to invest in authentically communicating around core values, by moving away from tropes like employing green or relying on nature imagery and “portraying ESG initiatives in ways that center the brand’s purpose and highlight sustainability starting from there,” he explained.

Brands’ caution in addressing purpose-related issues is leading to missed opportunities. According to Santiago, “Cultural relevancy and DEI reflections in ads lift purchase intent, brand opinion, and trust by 30-60% over ad likeability alone.”

“We have been getting away from them as an industry,” Santiago said. “When there are purpose-driven ads, those ads do the best across all segments [in the AIMM’s ad testing]. They definitely inspire multicultural and inclusive segments.”

1 comment about "Brands' Cautious Super Bowl Approach Reflects Wider Marketing Timidity".
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  1. Steve Schildwachter from Enterprise CMO, LLC, February 26, 2024 at 8:47 a.m.

    Alt. headline: Advertisers remembered advertising was meant to sell products.

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