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Guest column: Who passes and who fails? Super Bowl ads get their grades

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As a college professor who teaches both marketing and ethics, I have a rather unique outlook on advertising. I'm also used to grading, which lends to evaluating the latest Super Bowl ads.

You may be surprised by my assessment, but here’s how I’ve scored several of the most notable commercials from Super Bowl LI.

“F” for misappropriating music

Two different commercials incorporated songs that have great social and spiritual significance. Ford featured Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” while 20th Century Fox used “Amazing Grace” to promote “Logan,” the latest installment in the X-Men franchise. The songs worked in terms of gaining attention and arousing emotion, but they were very poor choices given the historic gravitas of both ballads. By using the songs to sell cars and promote a superhero film, the commercials trivialized the compositions’ true, deep meanings.

“D” for excessive violence

While watching the Super Bowl, several ads may have startled you: the movie trailers for “A Cure for Wellness” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the TV promos for “Empire” and “24 Legacy.” That sudden brutality was brief, however, compared to Wix’s 60-second demolition of people and property, all in the name of building a website. While most adults can easily handle the violence in each of these ads, the sponsors appeared to forget that over 100 million people in the United States alone watch the Super Bowl, which means there are plenty of grade-school and even preschool children in the audience who shouldn’t be exposed to such hostility.

“C” for indecency

Thankfully most Super Bowl advertisers have graduated from the "sex sells" mindset that GoDaddy perpetuated for many years. Still, a couple of advertisers insist on living in the lurid past. Most notably, Mr. Clean thought it would be wise to oversexualize its iconic animated spokesman. Yellow Tail took a somewhat more subtle approach by asking a bikini-clad Ellie Gonsalves, “Wanna pet my roo?” While adults could easily find both ads offensive, the commercials were especially inappropriate for the younger end of the Super Bowl viewing audience, as described above.

“B” for kind-hearted irrelevance

Partly because of recent political events, 2017 was the year of Super Bowl ad activism.

Dr. David Hagenbuch
Dr. David Hagenbuch - ()

Several companies used ads to draw attention to significant social issues such as immigration, equal pay, environmental preservation, and even supporting others’ dreams.

All of those spots can be commended for their social conscience, but can you remember the sponsors? Most people probably can’t recall 84 Lumber, Audi, Kia, and Honda because the activism overshadowed the advertisers. It’s fine if these firms were intending to be purely altruistic, but when organizations spend $5 million or more on advertising, their brands should receive proportional benefits. More strategic execution could have communicated the same social messages while forging clearer connections to the companies behind them—see an example below.

“A” for effective and ethical

Who scored at the top of the class? These were the companies that managed to enact effective marketing without ethical compromise. For instance, Febreze creatively connected its product to a very relevant and timely Super Bowl phenomenon: the halftime bathroom break. Google aired an array of heart-warming and relatable uses for “Home,” over a fitting instrumental version of “Take Me Home Country Road.” Also, unlike it’s “B-level” peers, Budweiser made a compelling statement about immigration that it clearly connected to its brand by dramatizing the supposed first meeting of its founders, Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch.

Of course, you may have liked some ads better than the ones that earned A's. Certain Super Bowl commercials were arguably funnier or otherwise more entertaining. Entertainment doesn’t do much good, though, if people can’t remember what an ad was for. The best ads don’t use creativity as an end in itself, but as a means of accomplishing tangible promotional objectives that benefit companies and consumers, and respect everyone the advertising impacts.

Dr. David Hagenbuch is a professor of marketing at Messiah College, author of "Honorable Influence" and founder of www.MindfulMarketing.org.

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