By: Marc Berliner, Senior Vice President

Brandon Graham’s strip-sack late in Super Bowl LII wasn’t the only fumble during the game, as advertisers failed to take advantage of a massive audience to bring awareness to key issues and reinforce authentic advocacy. Instead, they played it safe, largely avoiding politics and purpose in favor of humor.

It was a major departure from recent years when companies including Airbnb, Audi, 84 Lumber, Colgate and Budweiser used their slots to shine a light on issues like immigration, female empowerment, equal rights and sexual assault – and demonstrate action.

While there were some exceptions, most were light, feel-good spots on philanthropic efforts ranging from disaster relief to water access. There was also one spot that was criticized for its effort. Here’s a brief overview of a few of the CSR-themed ads:

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Stella Artois brand teamed up with and the nonprofit’s co-founder Matt Damon for the ad “Taps,” promoting the multi-year campaign in which Stella donates money to provide clean water for people in the developing world for every purchase of a specially designed version of its iconic chalice glasses. While the call to action is simple, the result is impactful – each chalice provides five years of clean water for someone in the developing world.
  • Another Anheuser-Busch InBev brand, Budweiser, highlighted its disaster relief efforts. Set to the tune “Stand By Me,” the ad entitled “Stand By You” shows a Budweiser factory general manager waking in the middle of the night to supervise switching over a production line from canning beer to water in response to a natural disaster. The ad highlights Budweiser’s long-standing commitment to providing water during disasters, a fact the general public may not be aware of.
  • Toyota sent a message of unity with a lighthearted ad featuring a priest, a rabbi, an iman and a Buddhist monk carpooling to a football game. With a tagline “We’re all one team,” the spot perhaps came closest of any to getting political. While it was by no means a hard-hitting rebuke of current calls for immigration reform, the ad did send a positive message.
  • Hyundai, meanwhile, tugged at the heartstrings with a spot called “Hope Detector” about the brand’s “Hope on Wheels” program that helps fight childhood cancer. Hyundai owners were intercepted at airports, where they watched videos from cancer survivors thanking them for their Hyundai purchase – of which a portion goes to the Hope on Wheels program – before the big reveal, where the survivors stepped from behind a screen to thank the consumers in person.
  • The Purpose-themed commercial that perhaps generated the most buzz was one for Dodge Ram – and the reaction was largely negative. Using a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech from February 4, 1968 as the voice-over, the ad sought to reinforce the brand’s “Built to Serve” tagline with various video clips of people “serving” …including lots of shots of Ram trucks. The brand was roundly criticized for exploiting the civil rights leader to sell vehicles. The ad did nothing to highlight if or how Dodge is championing a culture of service.

Cone has tracked Super Bowl advertising for the past 9 years, but after the explosion of provocative and purpose- driven ads of 2017, Super Bowl LII certainly came up short. Brands took a step back into the tried-and-true – and comfortable – executions we’ve seen in years past. This may be due to backlash some brands received over the past year for splashy ads that weren’t backed up with substance – as was the case with Audi’s “Daughter” ad (a brand suspiciously absent from this year’s ad lineup). Although the initial reaction was positive, once consumers looked under the hood at the company’s lack of women at the executive and board levels, the story shifted; now the ad has logged more “dislikes” than “likes” on YouTube.

As brands grapple with the best way to take a stand and back it up with the programs and policies to demonstrate authenticity, consumer expectations are not waning. In fact, 78 percent of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues – nearly nine-in-10 (87 percent) say they would purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about. As we move further into 2018, we’ll continue to track which brands garner “MVP” for clearly and credibly standing for critical issues – and which choose to watch from the sidelines.