7 Mins Read
Super Bowl LVI viewers saw the most ads in the game’s history to address climate change. But were they a victory for the planet or not?
We’ll be talking about Super Bowl LVI for decades for lots of reasons, if for no other than this moment. For all its buzz, America’s most beloved sporting event is not short on controversy. Days before the coin toss, a lawsuit was filed against three teams and the National Football League alleging ongoing discrimination. The NFL currently only has one Black head coach despite more than 70 percent of players being people of color.
Still, we tune in en masse—more than 100 million viewers—making it the most-watched event of the year. We try not to panic at the helmet-to-helmet hits and the myriad cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy that plague the league’s athletes.
It’s not all to win game day bets and eat too many chicken wings, though. The modern-day coliseum spectacle connects us to something deeper; the competition more a nod to our tribal tendencies, teamwork, strategy, and human potential than it is to elicit drunken chest-beating and trash-talking.
Don’t we need that? At least, a little?
Entering the third year of a pandemic that has touched all of our lives, there’s solace in cheering and gasping and watching the macho-ist of men cry and thank their mamas as they hold the Lombardi trophy. The spectacle feels both larger than life, and so very human.
But that’s just the game. We tune in, too, for the commercials—a finger on the pulse of humanity.
Super Bowl ads, a history
Most days, we forget that commercials are, at their core, dare I say, art. Born from a creative process meant to inspire, and, of course, drive sales, most often for beer, and trucks, in the case of those million-dollar Super Bowl spots. But artistic pursuits they are nonetheless. Sometimes they hit the mark.
In 2013, Dodge stopped Americans in their tracks with its two-minute ode to farmers with the voice-over from the late radio personality, Paul Harvey, “So God Made a Farmer.” It hit at a time when genetically-modified foods were at the heart of proposed legislation in California. Farmers faced other challenges then, too, like the failure of Congress to pass a new farm bill just a month prior to the spot, exacerbating feelings of political irrelevance for America’s heartland.
It also came as the local farmer’s movement was picking up steam in the nation’s urban centers, marking a shift away from our reliance on the breadbasket, a shift buoyed by a second Obama term in the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama’s pushes toward healthier food habits as the nation, particularly children in low-income neighborhoods, saw some of the highest obesity rates in the world. The Dodge ad did what the game between the commercials intends to do, too—connect us to something bigger.
In 2018, Beyond Meat ran in a different direction but with a similar goal. It appeared in the first-ever vegan meat commercial during the Super Bowl—a short spot for the meatless Beyond Burger at Carl’s Jr. It was a light humorous ad, featuring a stereotypical cowboy attempting to adjust to modernity, doing yoga, eating vegan meat. Its aim was to normalize plant meat as just another menu option; and now, four years later as McDonald’s expands its McPlant burger made with Beyond Meat to 600 locations nationwide, you could say that it was indeed a success.
All the way back in 2010, the late, great Betty White reacquainted us with ourselves, moody moments and all, reminding us, ironically through an ad for junk food, that self-care really does matter. That Snickers ad saw the 87-year-old get knocked down during a football game, snapping at her friends because she was hangry. One need only look at the booming wellness market in its wake to see that it tapped into a very real moment, closing in on a decade after 9-11, and our still-clenched jaws a reminder that we don’t check in with ourselves nearly as often as we should.
But fast-forward to 2022—Ms. White is no longer, Covid is still ravaging the planet, and our beloved farmers face challenges spurred by a host of issues, including an aggressive climate crisis that we can’t seem to wrangle under control.
Despite the record number of “environmental” Super Bowl ads this year—this year’s game saw more than twice as many climate-related ads than any other year, mostly in the form of car commercials—LVI’s commercials were surprisingly flat, an unfortunate display at a time when we needed them most to reframe this complicated world.
Super Bowl LVI ads
Mike Meyers dusted off Dr. Evil for a clunky GM spot about the need to save the world in order to then destroy it—it marks the first time the words “carbon footprint” appeared in a Super Bowl ad. Evil realizes the only means to that end—his save-to-destroy the world agenda, that is—is by selling more EVs. He must take over GM, and get us off fossil fuels before he spirals the planet into his own personal brand of evil. The spot wasn’t without humor, but it was largely without a center, perhaps the fix-and-destroy agenda was too much too soon, or fake evil overlords just don’t have the panache of the real ones currently denying any wrongdoing in the January 6, 2021 insurrection. But it was perhaps the most straightforward climate change message: the world needs saving.
That approach though doesn’t always land. Climate anxiety is indeed a real thing, and as we near closer to the third March of the pandemic, people don’t want to be reminded of the not-great state of things. It’s why we watch the Super Bowl in the first place. We want to escape.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Zeus and Salma Hayek’s Hera for BMW offered just that. It was far more clever than Dr. Evil—replete with a cute pet pegasus, Peggie—just a retired god using his powers for good, taking respite and simple pleasures in the all-electric new BMW as he cruises around Palm Springs. No evil to overcome there, just integrating electric cars as part of the new normal, hearkening to the Beyond Meat ad. It’s just another option, go ahead, try it.
There was Michelob’s seltzer boasting a USDA organic certification—a label so lost in the fray of our evolving/devolving food system that it might as well be a new exotic flavor rather than a symbol of progress. But, it too now offers yet another choice, another way of seeing our way through to change, even if too subtle.
I think we can all agree that Matthew McConaughey best serves humanity as a laidback stoner, but for Salesforce, he aims to do something else and remind us that earth, not outer space, is where our focus should be. And, alright, alright, alright, he does have a point, especially as billionaires keep making space trips while the planet is in peril. But Salesforce as a product? It’s over the heads of almost every viewer as a thing to care about, and the message most likely floated away like the helium balloon he was in.
If you were looking for a truly hopeful message in the tea leaves between touchdowns it was there, but one you may have missed. Larry David, the crank’s crank, starred in the cryptocurrency trading platform FTX’s spot. David was most relatable and entertaining, playing the pessimistic naysayer in a timeline that sees him laugh at inventions like the wheel, toilets, electricity, and the Constitution, before laughing at cryptocurrency itself.
But it’s what he doesn’t mention that is most notably the Super Bowl’s biggest win and a light illuminating the not-so-distant possible future. The company is co-founded by the 29-year-old vegan billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. He’s the richest person his age on the planet, with a net worth valued at more than $20 billion. Unlike the commercials overtly trying to sell us on doing better for the planet—a la Dr. Evil for GM making it feel like a moral obligation to drive an electric vehicle—Bankman-Fried did the opposite: he just went ahead and actually made the world a better place, no overt displays needed.
The FTX CEO is driven by his strong moral compass; he’s making billions of dollars to give them all away. FTX even gave away Bitcoin during the Super Bowl via its Twitter account—a move intended of course to drive app downloads and increase the likelihood of trades and sales.
And as all of that makes Bankman-Fried richer, he just gives more of it away to people doing the actual work to fix our planet. To date, Bankman-Fried has given away nearly $100 million to causes including animal welfare, climate action, and social justice issues. “My goal is just to find out how I can do the most good,” he’s said. And isn’t that the real message we all need to hear and act on right now? To use the words of another historic Super Bowl LVI moment, “You only get one shot. Do not miss your chance.”
Lead image still courtesy of General Motors advert.