Did Brands Overreact by Editing Super Bowl Ads After Kobe Bryant’s Death?

Marketing experts weigh in on whether changes were merited or overcautious

Planters, Genesis and Hard Rock International all adjusted their Super Bowl ad strategies after Kobe Bryant's death.
Planters, Genesis and Hard Rock International all adjusted their Super Bowl ad strategies after Kobe Bryant's death.
Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Planters, Hard Rock, Genesis

A week and a half ago, Planters released a Big Game teaser that shocked the ad world by killing off its 104-year-old mascot, Mr. Peanut, in a fiery road trip mishap. The Super Bowl set-up ad was accompanied by #RIPMrPeanut social campaign that immediately took off on Twitter and inspired numerous hot takes on the monocled legume.

But soon thereafter, a real celebrity, Kobe Bryant—along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna—died in a tragic accident that shook the world in a very real way. All of a sudden, the Peanut joke wasn’t so funny.

In response, Planters paused its pregame campaign on social media and other digital platforms. The brand did confirm, however, that it would run the Super Bowl spot as planned, which was said to be a funeral for the mascot.

Other brands also hastily altered plans: Genesis removed a parked helicopter from its already-released spot chastising “old luxury” and Hard Rock International cut scenes from its Michael Bay-directed ad that “could be perceived as insensitive.”

Toyota said that “out of sensitivity to recent news events, we made the decision to adjust our creative,” though the brand declined to say what specifically it had changed.

But how much are brands responsible for separating themselves from unforeseen current events, and at what point is this kind of last-minute backtracking over the top? Marketing experts weigh in.

Take the temperature of the culture, and adjust accordingly

According to Mark Taylor, chief creative officer, Mering, these questions exist in a grey area, but there are some general guidelines to identify. After a tragedy, Taylor said sometimes an eery similarity might require obvious adjustment.

But while playing it safe doesn’t hurt, Taylor argued there’s also a point where a change might have overcorrected.

“I don’t think it would have hurt it to keep a stationary helicopter on the ground, just because it has nothing to do with it,” Taylor said. “And I think people understand that.”

For Snickers, on the other hand, it would’ve been a mistake to remove the helicopter, according to Taylor. In the candy brand’s #SnickersFixTheWorld spot, the culmination of the joke features a helicopter dropping a giant Snickers into a hole to feed an “out-of-sorts” world.

“[The helicopter] was such a key part of the concepts and frankly, had nothing to do with the tragedy,” said Taylor. “It just kind of depends on how close to home it gets.”

With Planters’ campaign, it does get a little closer to home, he said, which means the brand needs to “take the temperature of the culture as things happen and be ready to adjust.”

But even then, given that Planters ad revolves around a “cartoon peanut,” Taylor said he thinks it’s doubtful that viewers will overtly make the connection to the tragedy. But as the cloud of the tragedy will be certainly be hovering over the Super Bowl, which airs just a week later, any overt similarities would be noticeable.

Stay authentic, and consider your message

According to Alixandra Barasch, assistant professor of marketing, NYU, whether a brand is overcorrecting in their response depends on how the change affects the ad’s message.

“I think Genesis was smart,” Barasch said. “It wasn’t overcorrecting because the helicopter did not need to be in the ad, to begin with. It doesn’t change the point of the message.”

Hard Rock is a little more interesting though.

“It sounds like it was a big, stunt-based ad,” Barasch said. And if that’s the case, changing it could really tone down the “entire point of the ad.” If Hard Rock is trying to portray itself as an “extravagant place where you can be, and be seen, or crazy things happen,” it’s hard to know whether editing out the Michael Bay stunts that might remind viewers of a helicopter crash would allow the spot to retain its meaning.

Barasch said brands are almost always going to err on the side of caution with sensitive topics like this, especially on the Big Game stage.

“Being talked about for maybe overcorrecting is where they would prefer to be,” she said.

The risks in overcorrecting, she said, would be if a brand seemed insincere about it or if the response seemed to go against the grain of the brand’s identity. For brands that have cultivated an image associated with adrenaline, pushing to the limit and never backing down, for example, attempting to address something sensitive and personal might come across as pandering or inauthentic.

“I think Hard Rock could definitely be in that space where they are criticized for reacting,” said Barasch. “I don’t know why it has to speak to you know, this tragedy, just because there are stunts and other sorts of glamorous Hollywood things that happen” in the ad.

As for Planters, despite the losses incurred by pausing the campaign this week, it’s lucky that the death of Mr. Peanut had already aired before the tragedy occurred, noted Barasch. The optics of killing the character afterward would’ve been significantly worse.

When in doubt, play it safe

“Part of making an ad stick is that it resonates with its audience, and if the audience isn’t in a mind frame to receive your messaging, the ad doesn’t do its job,” said Brian Tierney, CEO, Brian Communications.  “You don’t want to be in the position where your ad—which cost you upwards of $6 million—is remembered for the wrong reasons.”

In the case of the Big Game, few ads actually break through and even fewer are remembered years later. Steve Parker, Jr., CEO and co-founder, Levelwing, described the Super Bowl as a “sensitive night.”

“I think that love and humor and kindness will win this year’s game, given the national sentiment,” he added.

People are still coming to grips with what happened last weekend, so they’ll be seeing everything through an emotional lens.

“It’s definitely going to push people away from doing anything that could potentially be damaging,” Barasch said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Recommended videos