Despite a Call for More Authenticity, Super Bowls Are So Far Feeling Largely Purposeless

The majority of teasers released aren’t prioritizing a specific value

A sun in the middle; people pointing their fingers in every which direction
At risk of coming across too controversial, many Super Bowl ads so far seem to be falling flat.
Getty Images

In one of the first-ever Super Bowl commercials, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s face was “creamed” by Farrah Fawcett in a salacious spot for Noxzema. Joe’s celebrity status soared after leading the Jets to victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. More surprising was how the face of a celebrity became the new way to turn a brand into a household name.

Since the 1970s, star power has been a winning game plan for Madison Avenue, with thousands of celebrities paid hundreds of millions of dollars to pitch anything and everything, from cars to candy to athletic shoes to erectile dysfunction remedies.

This year’s star-studded lineup has Sarah Michelle Gellar screaming for Olay, Tony Romo promoting Skechers, Charlie Sheen and Alex Rodriguez pushing Planters, Chance the Rapper and the Backstreet Boys plugging Doritos, Zoe Kravitz selling Michelob Ultra and on and on. Endorsers fetch between $750,000 and $15 million for their celebrity fee, and brands still have to pay the hefty $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

As Americans get ready for kick off on Feb. 3, I can’t help but wonder if marketers advertising during Super Bowl LIII are celebrating the right anthems.

The crop of crazily expensive [Super Bowl] spots are shockingly bereft of purpose.

At Davos this month, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said consumers want to know how brands are “making society and the planet a little better” and that products that demonstrate a clear purpose are poised for dramatically better results. Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard, who faced backlash from a recent Gillette ad around masculinity, delivered a similar message: Consumers expect brands to take stands and have points of view. He pointed to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which showed eight out of 10 consumers prefer cause-driven brands.

A recent global strategy research report from Accenture that polled nearly 30,000 consumers in 35 countries, including more than 2,000 in the U.S., found that 62 percent want companies to take a stand on current and relevant issues like sustainability, transparency and fair employment practices. Companies, per the report, suffer consumer backlash if their brands don’t align with customer beliefs.

Amazingly, ironically, frustratingly, ridiculously, if the teaser spots for Super Bowl LIII are any indication, advertisers and marketing leaders aren’t heeding the consumer calls for more brand purpose. The crop of crazily expensive spots are shockingly bereft of purpose. Yes, Kia is using the mega millions it would cost to run a spot to kick off its The Great Unknowns Scholarship to help the not yet famous “get a foothold in higher education.” Great, that matters. Good for Bumble for using tour de force Serena Williams to empower women around keeping the ball in their court. And Verizon is also expected to again salute first responders.

It’s still early, and I hope more do-gooders enter the fray. But other than Anheuser-Busch, which is featuring Bob Dylan’s iconic 1962 anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” to tout sustainability and the fact that Budweiser is the first major brand to be brewed entirely with wind power, the spots being teased are surprisingly purposeless.

The half-century-old mindset of paying big money for the artifice of a celebrity endorsing a brand couldn’t be more different than the new thinking of discovering the genuine, strategically absolute brand purpose. Let’s face it: Celebrities are paid to pretend to care. Purpose is the undeniable truth that connects with human consciousness.

If the millennial generation is demanding authenticity and expecting their personal values to align with the values of the brands they buy, where does that leave the celebrity? Hopefully demanding that their star power be used for good as they help make purpose the new true darling of advertising. Like BlackRock CEO Larry Fink recently said, “Purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being.”

Ultimately, the truth remains to be seen. Can Super Bowl advertisers find their brand purpose? It’s time for the commercial playbook to change. We might not see the overhaul during commercial breaks this Sunday, but if marketers don’t make seismic shifts soon, in the words of Broadway Joe, they are going to “get creamed.”