Expect to see electric vehicles, sustainability messages during this year’s Super Bowl

Images from Super Bowl LVI TV commercials set in the shape of a football.
Super Bowl LVI will air Feb. 13 on NBC.

Every year, as many as one out of every three people in the United States watches the Super Bowl.

Given the size of the audience glued to their screens, the event is the pinnacle of advertising, prompting companies to pull out all the stops to ensure their commercial is trending in the hours and days to come.

How companies create conversation and where they hope to see dialogue play out has changed significantly since the Super Bowl was first played in 1967.

“People are there to be entertained, and whether it’s humorous or heart felt, the best advertisements are the ones that have the potential to go viral,” Dan Petek, an instructor at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, said.

Advertisers are also increasingly sensitive to current events and make efforts to message around topics that audiences are passionate about. Traditional themes of patriotism and nostalgia will likely play besides sustainability and inclusivity among commercials this year.

“In the last two years people have been isolated and locked in due to COVID-19, and so a heartfelt message that shows empathy for the audience, or touches a cord that’s personal to them will be able to create a bond,” Petek said.

From hammer throwing to ‘Drake from State Farm’

In 1984, Apple threw a metaphorical hammer through the bulky television sets of Super Bowl viewers with its “1984” commercial.

Justin Barnes, a scholarly assistant professor with the Murrow College of Communication, credits the spot as being the most famous commercial to air during the Super Bowl. In the years that followed, companies like Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and Reebok sparked heated debates around water coolers with which had the best ad that year.

The lure of having a talked-about Super Bowl advertisement is such that sometimes companies stake their futures on making a splash at the Super Bowl. In 1998, an Oregon-based company called Gardenburger spent its entire marketing budget on a spot during the big game. Petek recalled the ad making a splash and getting some attention, but the company never completely broke through and was eventually sold to Kelloggs.

Outright failure costs companies not only millions of dollars but damage to their reputations.

“If it’s not a good advertisement, it’s a blemish that’s going to get called out in the blogs that folks at ad agencies read and it can be brutal,” Petek said. 

The rise of streaming platforms posed significant challenges to advertisers: how do they generate interest in products if viewers aren’t watching traditional television? The answer was to meet viewers where they were: on social media. Often, the best advertisements aren’t seen by most during the game, but afterward on Facebook or Twitter. It also helps that the Super Bowl, while not as big of an attraction as it has been, continues to pull tens of millions of viewers in every year.

“You see this large focus on traditional advertising for the Super Bowl because you have viewers held hostage by live sports and you can complement it by encouraging viewers to engage in conversations about the advertisements on social media,” Barnes said.

Petek cited Tide’s 2018 “It’s a Tide Ad” campaign as one of the best recent examples of how to go viral. For Tide, the secret came in a winking nod toward the tried-and-truisms of past Super Bowl advertisements — the funny beer ad, the heady-yet-incomprehensible spot or high-budget car commercials.

Gratuitous celebrity cameos, awe-inspiring production quality and tugging at heart strings have all found success in recent years with Super Bowl advertising. Think “Drake from State Farm,” or Google’s “Loretta” spot from 2020.

Crypto, electric vehicles and even more celebrities

While it’s impossible to know with certainty what advertisements companies will roll out on Feb. 13, Barnes and Petek shared some educated guesses.

Both expect to see companies, especially traditional auto manufacturers, lean into their sustainability and climate conscious efforts. Electric vehicles will be front and center, as will products with recycled materials or from companies talking about their conservation efforts.

The future of technology will also be on display, whether its wearables like the Apple Watch or visions of augmented and virtual reality. Also expect to see mentions of crypto currency and non-fungible tokens, commonly known as NFTs.

Hollywood will likely be putting its biggest and most high-profile upcoming movies front and center after a difficult two years, Barnes said.  You’re also likely to see companies like Anheuser-Busch fire back against the makers of hard seltzers, which have been pushing hard against traditional light beers in recent years. More celebrity cameos and advertisements that tie their storylines directly into popular media are also likely to make an appearance.

“You’re definitely going to see a spot for AppleTV+ with Ted Lasso giving a pre-game or halftime speech,” Barnes said.

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