Did Super Bowl LV Fumble on Purpose?

Feb 10, 2021 3:40 PM ET

Even before the big game, there was an enormous scrutiny on how brands would choose to show up in the light of this immensely difficult time we are in as a nation. Would companies choose this as a moment in time to lean-in on pandemic PSAs – or perhaps show receipts on racial justice commitments announced in 2020? Would they give thanks to front line employees – or showcase an evolving approach to Purpose? The result, in fact, was quite unexpected, as many brands chose to take a comedic, lighthearted approach with little to no mention of the ongoing pandemic, economic distress and continued inequities. However, while many companies took a slightly disconnected approach to advertising during Super Bowl LV, a few used their air time to raise awareness for important issues, highlight commitments and engage audience members. Here’s our roundup of impactful ad efforts:

  • After past struggles with its sustainability direction, General Motor used its Super Bowl ad to solidify its new direction and commitment to the environment.  The ‘No way Norway’  spot leveraged Will Ferrell’s classic silliness to drive home a sustainability message. The brand used the time to spotlight its first-of-its-kind pledge to eliminate production of gas-powered by 2035, launched in November 2020.
  • DoorDash went straight down the cause marketing path with a feel-good, revamped sing/rap alongside with Daveed Diggs and the cast of Sesame Street. For every order, DoorDash pledged to donate $1 to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit part of Sesame Street whose mission is to “help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.” The message of supporting local businesses and future generations rang true with the service offering of DoorDash.
  • As children and billionaires alike dream of going to space, Inspiration 4 used its air time to promote a giveaway to the “first all-civilian space mission” as well as its philanthropic relationship with Saint Jude. The ad created a call to action to learn more about how contestants could win a seat on the Space-X mission through a donation to Saint Jude, helping Inspiration 4 reach its goal of donating $100 million to the cause. The high visibility reward of the contest is likely to draw widespread participation and donations.
  • Toyota chose to inspire us all to hope. Its spot featured multi-gold medalist, Jessica Long’s, moving journey from an orphan diagnosed with the rare condition fibular hemimelia to a decorated Paralympian. It was also one of the only brands to make mention of the pandemic by reminding viewers to wear masks during a 5-second display ad. These were both things we expected more of during this year’s Super Bowl.

While we all got a good chuckle at ads highlighting the lemons thrown to us in 2020, overall, this year’s roundup of Super Bowl ads lacked the purpose and intention we’ve seen from brands in the past. Whether feeling comedy and irreverence was the best balm to our current circumstances or perhaps an overall timidness to take a strong position on issues, companies seemed to choose to disconnect from reality in this year’s ad roundup.  Our research has shown time and time again, companies need to lead with purpose, act with authenticity and be prepared to show progress on commitments, but many brands missed the opportunity to do so with a massive captive audience at this year’s Super Bowl.