Hey, Super Bowl Advertisers, It's Time to Start Reflecting Black Nostalgia

Big Game ads love to revisit the '80s and '90s, but our experience is almost always absent. Let's change that

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Great advertisers know how to take the pulse of society. And you don’t have to be blessed with the medical expertise of Dr. Philip Chandler from St. Elsewhere to know that 2020 was a lot.

In troubled times, few things are more inviting than the comforting, warm embrace of nostalgia. It’s a needed break from our daily reality—a reminder of happier days, fewer worries and more joy. 

Advertisers know it, too. Nostalgia comes equipped with a powerful emotional hook, immediately snagging the attention of audiences eager to flash back to simpler times. So it’s no surprise that nostalgia is often the secret weapon for the advertising world’s biggest day of the year.

Over the past few years, Super Bowl ads have frequently turned back the clock to the halcyon days of CD players and scrambled cable stations. In 2019, Stella Artois brought together Sex and the City and The Big Lebowski, while the Backstreet Boys returned to collaborate with Chance the Rapper. Last year, Bill Murray revisited Groundhog Day on, well, Groundhog Day, while Bryan Cranston and Tracee Ellis Ross weirded us out with their reimagining of The Shining. Thanks, Mountain Dew Zero.

But with some exceptions, most of these flashbacks are missing a key ingredient: Black nostalgia.

Nostalgia is not a monolith

My nostalgia looks very different from those aforementioned ads. I certainly watched Groundhog Day and can hum “I Want It That Way,” but my greatest memories of the ’80s and ’90s are of Adidas tracksuits and George Jefferson gliding effortlessly across the living room carpet. Donnie Simpson’s smooth voice introducing us to future music legends on BET’s Video Soul, while Big Lez brought the realness of hip-hop to the masses on Rap City. 

My nostalgia is rooted in the ladies of Living Single redefining Black womanhood while the Wayans family pushed every boundary imaginable through the comedy and commentary of In Living Color. Robert Townsend in his rubbery Meteor Man muscle suit was the first Black superhero we saw on the big screen.

It’s important that advertisers understand that all nostalgia isn’t created equal.

Unfortunately, many marketers make the mistake of boxing audiences into neat, age-defined categories—put your millennials here, shove your Gen Zers there, lock the boomers in here and carve out a slot for the Gen Xers there.

But nostalgia shouldn’t just be defined by age. It’s about culture as well. 

Need inspiration? Look to Geico

Super Bowl ads have often missed the opportunity to tap into Black nostalgia. Sure, there have been occasional attempts. I’m sure people will quickly point out MC Hammer parading around in his plaid parachute pants for Cheetos last year. But while Hammer was a huge part of my childhood (shout-out to the Saturday morning Hammerman cartoon; the real ones remember that one), “U Can’t Touch This” was a massive crossover hit that transcended cultural lines. There are many more opportunities to dive deeper into Black nostalgia specifically.

The Martin Agency gets it. Atlanta hip-hop duo Tag Team set the world on fire in 1993 with “Whoomp! (There It Is).” Flipping that iconic track into an ice cream jingle for their recent Geico spot works on two levels. First, it’s just insanely fun, but it also hits all the nostalgic notes for Black ’80s babies and ’90s kids who annoyed their parents endlessly with the song’s bombastic hook.

I know I wasn’t the only kid screaming “Whoomp! There it is!” through the house. Those kids are now parents with money to burn (as portrayed in that ad).

With the Super Bowl a few days away, I’d love to see more agencies follow Martin’s lead. Instead of leaning on the well-worn tropes—like yet another ad set to a Kanye West soundtrack—how about digging deeper into the well of Black pop culture? I’d love to see a savvy advertiser creatively co-opt Dwayne and Whitley’s infamous wedding scene from A Different World for a bridal spot. What about reuniting Martin Lawrence and the members of Jodeci to rerecord their unforgettable performance of “Lately?” Or maybe Larenz Tate and Nia Long rekindling their simmering Love Jones romance prior to Valentine’s Day?

If those examples don’t ring a bell for you, trust me, they certainly do for Black audiences of a certain age. They deserve representation as well. It speaks to the heart of inclusion: meeting audiences where they are and incorporating their stories into your own product.

Black nostalgia is a joy unto itself—the humor, wit, pain and triumph that’s unique to our experience.  

If advertisers can tap into that this Sunday, they’ll have customers more loyal than Steve Urkel was to Laura … or Myra was to Steve.

If you don’t know what I mean, trust me, you had to be there. 

For all the latest Super Bowl advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl 2021 Ad Tracker and the rest of our stories about the Big Game. And join us on the evening of Feb. 7 for the best in-game coverage of the commercials anywhere.