Brands Advertising in Super Bowl LII Played It Safe, Largely Avoiding Sex and Politics

But they still have a way to go on equality and inclusivity

Brands tried hard to stay away from controversy. Coca-Cola
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

If you noticed something missing from the slate of ads that ran during Super Bowl LII, you weren’t the only one.

Conspicuously absent were the well-placed watermelons of Carl’s Jr’s heyday or GoDaddy’s “supermodel meets real-life nerd” fantasies. Even Cindy Crawford played second fiddle to her teenage son in Pepsi’s reimagining of its own 1992 classic featuring the fashion icon.

But it wasn’t just a lack of sex that left a lackluster taste in the mouths of many agency creatives. Brands tried as hard as they could to avoid controversy; even Justin Timberlake played it safe.

There wasn’t anybody really going for it and pushing any boundaries,” said Wieden + Kennedy executive creative director Jason Bagley, “which is probably one of the reasons why nothing stood out as super memorable this year.”

It’s official—sex no longer sells

FCB global chief creative officer Susan Credle correctly predicted that brands would stay far away from both sexy spots and weighty social issues, choosing instead to make more general statements on inclusion as in Wieden + Kennedy’s “A Coke for Everyone.”

“If anything was a response to #MeToo, it was [the fact that] every brand knew that if you objectify a woman you are going to be crucified,” Credle said. “That’s a huge statement.”

“I think brands are waking up a little bit,” added Ogilvy & Mather senior partner, executive creative director Victoria Azarian. “Women have been stating for a while now that they don’t like those kinds of ads, but brands weren’t listening because sex sells. Now, we are at such a pivotal time in our country that brands have no choice but to listen. And there are also more women creating ads.”

“There wasn’t anybody really going for it and pushing any boundaries, which is probably one of the reasons why nothing stood out as super memorable this year.”
Wieden + Kennedy executive creative director Jason Bagley

This shift has been coming for some time. Rebecca Ortiz, assistant professor of advertising at Syracuse University, cited research tracking a general trend away from sexualized imagery and messaging, especially over the past two to three years.

Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business, also discussed a study which found that approximately 6 percent of ads used sex as a selling point over time. Researchers witnessed that number drop over the project’s 10-year duration, but the vast majority of campaigns simply don’t appeal to consumers’ basest instincts. “Sex appeal can be good for boosting awareness, but in terms of positive association with a given brand’s attributes, its not nearly as effective,” Taylor said.

Maybe sex never sold all that well in the first place.

Still, Taylor noted, the tonal change as seen in Super Bowl LII is very real, saying, “I’m quite confident that the number of sexual appeals in this year’s game would have been zero.”

Brands still catching up on gender equality

Despite the fact that brands are going out of their way to avoid sending mixed messages on sexism and female empowerment, some obvious hurdles remain.

Taylor noted more racial diversity in this year’s ads, but he was also surprised to find that the overwhelming majority of characters were still men, with the 2-to-1 male-to-female ratio among celebrities and protagonists holding stable for more than a decade. “With viewership being almost equal [among men and women], I might have thought this would have been a year when that would start to even out a little bit,” Taylor said. “But it really wasn’t.”

Some of the game’s ads did reflect societal changes in subtle ways. Wieden + Kennedy’s Bagley noted that the Coca-Cola spot included a reference to “they/them” alongside depictions of “all kinds of different couples.” He added that Coca-Cola is “putting their values out there knowing that there’s going to be a certain percentage of the country that doesn’t agree” with evolving definitions of gender and sexual identities.

That said, some industry veterans saw hints of the same old casual sexism bubbling beneath Super Bowl Sunday’s brand messages.

“I was a little shocked at the Diet Coke ad, which I thought was really inappropriate for young women,” said Ogilvy’s Azarian of the spot in which a slender young woman appears to mimic the shape of the brand’s new cans. “I have a 10-year-old daughter, and I don’t want her to look at that and think, that’s what I need to be,” she said. “It was the wrong message overall.

Credle, who also found the Diet Coke ad off-putting, positioned her agency’s Michelob Ultra campaign as a 180-degree pivot from the suggestive spots of yesteryear. “Everybody likes Chris Pratt,” she said. “I think that’s women choosing for women.”

No politics, thank you

Once certainly can’t blame marketers for trying to sidestep today’s increasingly polarized political climate. Take, for example, the many Twitter users who were quick to share their overwhelmingly negative feelings about the Ram Trucks ad set to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

Budweiser, Stella Artois, Verizon and T-Mobile focused on social good but made sure to avoid even the slightest hint of partisanship. Ironically, the ad most likely to be described as political came from a brand whose CEO insisted it was anything but.

WeatherTech CEO David MacNeil told Adweek that any connection between President Trump’s #BuildTheWall and his brand’s “America First” ad, which included many images of walls being built, was “absolutely ridiculous.”

Viewers disagreed. Ortiz described it as the game’s “most political” spot.

“I thought that was a pretty direct analogy [with Trump’s wall],” said Muh-tay-zik | Hof-fer associate partner and group creative director Joel Kaplan. “Everyone in our viewing party groaned, not because of the message, but because this year was more the year of inclusiveness.” Even if WeatherTech did not intend to make a political statement, these connections were all but inevitable.

So what’s a brand to do?

“You have to be careful but you also have to be reasonable,” Bagley warned fearful clients. “If you’re not willing to say anything, if you’re not willing to offend a single person in the country, you’re also going to be completely forgotten.”

Credle struck a similar cautionary note: “You can’t even tell, if you choose to go one way, what fraction of any audience is going to go with you,” she said. “Unless you truly have a powerful statement to make, it’s not worth it.”

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.