When Companies Make Super Bowl Ads About Social Issues – Who Wins?

Photo by Jay Goldman
This year, more than ever before, corporations decided to center their Super Bowl ads around pro-social messages, says Emily Yu on the Case Foundation blogCoca Cola took a stand against cyber bullying. Menstrual-pad-makers Always got feminist, pointing out the harm that comes from the throwaway phrase “throw like a girl.” And Toyota shot a gorgeous spot celebrating the physical power and beauty of TED speaker Amy Purdy, an athlete with prosthetic legs. (To see all these ads, click the link to Emily’s piece, above.)

This should be great news…and, on one level, it is: Millions of people watching the big game were sold the messages that bullying is wrong, that the words we use have real-world consequences, and that beauty and power (female beauty and power, in particular) comes in many forms. These are beautiful human messages with the potential to enlighten and inspire. So, yes — for all of these reasons, bravo to these companies. More to the point, bravo to millennials, for voting, apparently, with their dollars, for companies that “do good” — for making causes cool.

And yet…and yet, there is a danger, here, in confusing the company with the message. I have no beef with Coca Cola, and I haven’t researched them enough to know if there’s anything about their business practices with which I’d take issue, but I sure know that the product they’re selling isn’t beneficial — not for a minute. It’s sugar and chemicals. Kids drink way too much of it — all of us do — and coincidentally, there’s an obesity epidemic on. So huzzah to them for taking a stand against cyber bullying (though, really — who would take a stand on its behalf?!) — but let’s use those media literacy skills our teachers tried to impart, and remember that just because they made a nice Super Bowl ad, doesn’t mean they actually come out ahead on the “are they making the world a better place” scale.

Ditto for Toyota. Again, I have no specific beef with them, but I’m pretty sure their cars aren’t actually designed to break down beauty stereotypes…nor are the menstrual pads coming out of Always HQ optimized to combat sexism. If you want to channel dollars toward companies who work tirelessly to make the world a better place for girls and women, check out one of these nonprofit organizations — none of which, I feel confident guessing, could afford $4 million or more to run an ad during the Super Bowl:

Girls on the Run
Girls Rock
Hope’s Door
Mama Cash
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
The Malala Fund
The Representation Project

The ultimate do-gooder, Mister Rogers, urged children to look always for the “helpers.” In the wake of the corporate media frenzy that is the Super Bowl, it’s incumbent on those of us who are passionate about making the world a better place to celebrate those who are really doing the work — not just those paying lip service in order to sell a product that does not, in fact, leave the world better than we found it. 

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2 thoughts on “When Companies Make Super Bowl Ads About Social Issues – Who Wins?

  1. I see your point about their ulterior motive. Knowing I'm being sold something gives me a less than warm and fuzzy feeling, but at 4.5 million dollars an ad, I'd prefer they talk about cyberbullying than how much fun it is to drink a Coke. It's a good chance for a company with lots of money to promote a social cause. Since SuperBowl ads and their ridiculous price aren't going away any time soon, the question I'm left wondering after your post is how could they win?On another note, yes, let's not forget about companies who do real good in this world! Thanks for the reminder.

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  2. Justine — thanks so much for your thoughts! I agree, if they're taking out an ad anyway…why not make it about something useful? So on one level, it's a great thing. But…but. I'm just concerned that media coverage of the ad (and the other ones I mention) gives kudos to Coke without taking a more critical look. Which is ultimately why companies like Coke do this — to get a halo effect, which busy people allow to morph into a sense that Coke is doing really great things in the world, so it's a good idea to give them our dollars… I just wanted to dissect that a bit, and say: Don't confuse an ad with their real agenda, and if you really want to give kudos, give them to the activists who devote themselves to these essential social issues every single day…usually without any glory, let alone, money.

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