Why Brands Spend $5 Million (or More) on a Super Bowl Ad to Support a Cause

The approach has become a new convention

Toyota's 'Good Odds' featuring Lauren Woolstencroft was rated as one of the year's "most effective" ads. Toyota

A beer brand touting its disaster relief efforts. A car brand supporting gender equality. A vacation rental company pushing for diversity. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of brands aligning themselves with causes, a trend that has found its way into advertising’s biggest night—the Super Bowl. Brands backed a cause in just 6 percent of Super Bowl ads a decade ago. Today it’s about a quarter of all spots, according to Charles Taylor, professor of marketing at the Villanova School of Business.

With the chance to reach massive audiences, companies like Airbnb, Audi and Budweiser have used the Super Bowl to align their brands with causes viewers care about. And for good reason: A new study by Accenture Strategy found 62 percent of consumers surveyed want brands to take a stand on issues.


“Increasingly the baseline expectation is that brands be good corporate citizens,” said MullenLowe chief strategy officer Elizabeth Paul. “Sometimes [the Super Bowl] is an opportunity for a brand to artfully take credit for the good that they do during the year, and sometimes it’s them wanting to use that stage and that platform to associate with a cause.”

But why now?

“Millennials are more likely to give brands credit for linking themselves to a cause than previous generations,” Taylor explained, which he called the largest factor driving the trend.

Deb Gabor, CEO of brand strategy consultancy Sol Marketing, views 2016 as a turning point, connecting the trend to that year’s presidential election and “controversy that thrust brands into a mind space where they were almost forced to pick sides on various social issues.”

In the subsequent Super Bowl, advertisers doubled down on politics, with brands such as Audi, Budweiser and 84 Lumber tackling issues including immigration, diversity and gender equality. Paul called 84 Lumber’s ad “an amazing investment because everyone was talking about a brand no one had heard of.”

While 2018’s Super Bowl ads shied away from politics, brands continued to align themselves with causes.

Budweiser’s “Stand by Me” spot highlighting its water relief efforts and Toyota’s “Good Odds” ad featuring Paralympic gold medalist Lauren Woolstencroft were rated as the year’s two “most effective” ads, according to data by Unruly.

Verizon CCO Andrew McKechnie claimed the brand’s salute to first responders last year earned the “second-highest brand sentiment across Super Bowl ads,” per analytics from Crimson Hexagon.

He explained that as a category leader, Verizon felt “a responsibility to put out an important message” in a space characterized by “hyper-competitive and mudslinging” ads, while striking an emotional chord with viewers—a message backed by Verizon’s “deep relationship with first responders” through various initiatives over the years.

Verizon is continuing the approach this year with a Super Bowl ad focused on first responders and the NFL players they saved, supported by a social media effort in which Verizon will donate up to $1.5 million to First Responders Outreach.

Taylor predicts it’s more likely that brands will align themselves with non-divisive causes than airing a Colin Kaepernick-like Nike ad. “Most of these brands that are spending $5 million have a wide target audience and for most of them … anything that’s going to alienate consumers doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Brands also need to be careful not to be perceived as inauthentic, which can lead to backlash. “The more [brands] can link it back to something special about the company that’s unique, the better chance they have of making it work,” Taylor explained.

While the number of cause-related Super Bowl ads may ebb and flow from year to year, such ads are here to stay.

“Marketers will continue to do this,” Paul said. “Even if it doesn’t break through” in the same way it did “when it wasn’t as much of a convention as it is now,” it is “still a high-profile way to associate your brand with a cause that … presumably millions of Americans care about.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there will be more CSR [corporate social responsibility] ads than historical levels,” Taylor added.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.