Sunday night’s Super Bowl ads were filled with high-profile mash-ups like Peyton Manning and John Malkovich, Jeff Bridges and Sarah Jessica Parker, Steve Carell with Cardi B and Lil Jon, Chance the Rapper and the Backstreet Boys and Bud Light and Game of Thrones.
While commercials refrained from commentary on the most controversial issue surrounding the NFL – Colin Kaepernick and kneeling during the national anthem – there were still political messages present in advertisements.
The Washington Post ad, narrated by Tom Hanks, made a powerful argument for press freedom. The spot used a range of imagery from American lore including war, civil rights movements, the moon landing and first responders. The ad also paid tribute to journalists Austin Tice, Jamal Khashoggi and Marie Colvin.
While the Washington Post ad was generally received well, there was also significant backlash on Twitter from some journalists who wondered whether the money for the Super Bowl spot could have been put to better use.
I’m really proud to work at a newspaper that does this vital work.
But maybe next $10 million could go toward better health benefits, parental leave, equal pay, and more jobs for reporters? https://t.co/uM06SWUdHh
— Sarah Kaplan (@sarahkaplan48) February 4, 2019
If you're buying a subscription to @washingtonpost thanks to their extremely expensive superbowl ad, maybe write them a note saying you hope that money goes to paying freelancers and staffers reasonable wages. Cause right now their rates for writers are, frankly, horrifying.
— Erin Biba (@erinbiba) February 4, 2019
Verizon’s multiple ads were filled with stories of first responders saving lives. The ad’s slogan, “First responders answer the call. Our job is to make sure they get it,” seems to refer to the incident during the Mendocino Complex Fire.
Back in August, outlets like The Washington Post, The Sacramento Bee and NPR reported that Verizon had inhibited first responders’ ability to fight the Mendocino Complex Fire. The fire department exceeded their data cap, causing Verizon to reduce the department’s high-speed wireless service even though the company had been alerted of the emergency. Verizon’s statement to The Washington Post at the time was that it had made a “customer support mistake” with the fire department.
Verizon’s PR move for redemption was not received well by all.
In case you wonder why Verizon keeps airing ads about why their job is to make sure first responders “get the call.”
Because they actively thwarted them during the CA forest fires: https://t.co/xzYBaQ7PjS
— John Pfaff (@JohnFPfaff) February 4, 2019
What Verizon left out of its first responder #SuperBow ad: during the CA fires it slowed firefighter's internet; they alerted Verizon & it told them to "upgrade" the plan. Now, firefighters are fighting Verizon & the Trump admin to restore Net Neutrality https://t.co/kfm33pWYPc
— Avi Asher-Schapiro (@AASchapiro) February 4, 2019
Companies made a play for feminism as well. Advertisements for Bumble and Toyota featured Serena Williams and Toni Harris, respectively, both barrier-breaking black female athletes. Serena Williams is a four-time Olympic gold medalist with 72 career singles titles, 23 doubles titles, and two mixed double titles under her belt, while Toni Harris is one of the first female football players to make a college roster in a skill position.
Microsoft’s “When everybody plays, we all win,” spot and Google’s advertisements for innovative tools to improve veterans’ job searches and their own translation services were, on the surface, heartwarming and universal.
Providing video game controllers for disabled children, jobs for veterans or enhanced translation software are not hot-button political issues – but they are still political. Inclusion can be a radical notion in today’s fraught political environment, but these messages champion it nonetheless. The 100 Billion Words ad in particular inherently advocates for cross-cultural acceptance and interaction.
Kia’s ad about “The Unknowns” that build Kia vehicles in West Point, Georgia focused on the everyday people who “work hard and make incredible things.” The small-town feel was reminiscent of political emphasis on jobs for the working class.
Reception of the spot was mixed. While Forbes lauded Kia’s “authentic ode to the Georgians who are building Telluride,” The Washington Post questioned whether the “expression of American pride” was effective for “a commercial that, in purposefully small print, notes that the cars use some foreign-made parts?”
Even the beer ads seemed to be joining the semi-political fray this year. Budweiser’s advertisement featuring a dog’s ears flapping in the wind ended with a refreshing message: “Now brewed with wind power for a better tomorrow.” Climate change commentary and renewable energy advocacy are not usual features of America’s biggest football game.
Bud Light and Michelob Ultra had public health-focused messages that were less traditionally political. Bud Light’s spot compared its ingredients to that of Coors Light and Miller Lite, emphasizing that Bud Light was not brewed with corn syrup. Michelob Ultra Pure Gold was lauded as “beer in its organic form,” at a time when organic is a sort of buzzword and people are beginning to pay attention to artificial ingredients in their food and drink.
An honorable mention should be made to Amazon for their ad in which they lean into the perception that they have come to run the entire world. Their spot features an astronaut talking to Alexa in a spaceship and accidentally flipping the power in the United States on and off repeatedly.
America’s most-watched sporting event reaches mass audiences across the country of different ages, races, political affiliations and backgrounds. Political media has become increasingly more pervasive over the years, jumping off newspaper pages and television screens to saturate social media and entertainment media. The line between politics and Hollywood is as blurry as ever. It is no surprise that these commercials with a cause have infiltrated the Super Bowl, too.