How Did The 2021 Super Bowl Ads Depict Sustainability? (Video)

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Super Bowl ads capture the newest, best, and most promising products on the market. They have high production values and are a bright platform for advertising directed to a strong customer base or that deal with a general need, such as food & beverage, film, and automobiles.

Product advertising captures the attention not only of consumers but also of investors. The Super Bowl is the biggest advertising event in the US, viewed by approximately 100 million individuals every year. The big audience has a big price tag, too — companies paid roughly $5.5 million for each 30-second slot this year, an expensive marketing gamble that is higher than the average annual advertising expenditure on TV every 30 minutes. Usually about 14 publicly traded companies in the S&P 500 Index pay this very expensive rate, airing one or multiple ads.

Olivier François, the chief marketing officer for Jeep’s parent company, Stellantis, told the New York Times that, because of the high cost, “the only way to make a return on investment is to make the ad last. If it’s going to be forgotten in a year or so, it probably is not worth the money.”

So what about sustainability, clean energy, and electrification made a company feel strongly enough this year, amidst a pandemic, to invest the big bucks into a Super Bowl commercial? How effective were those commercials in conveying messages about the need to become a zero emissions society? What lasting impression could these ads make?

Last year, basketball legend LeBron James starred in a Hummer ad that emphasized the vehicle’s “quiet revolution.” The words “All Electric” appeared on the screen, as did “Zero Emissions” and “Zero Limits.” At the end, each of the grille grids held a letter: “H-U-M-M-E-R.” This Super Bowl ad foregrounded the all-electric Hummer’s 1,000-horsepower powertrain, its capacity to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3 seconds, and the quietness consistent with electric vehicles. The Hummer EV will go on sale in fall, 2021, and at first only the most expensive Edition 1 model will be available; less expensive trims will come into the picture starting in 2022, according to Car and Driver.

In 2019, Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser had an appeal to a green audience in its Super Bowl LIII commercial, titled “Wind Never Felt Better.” For the majority of the 61 seconds, it focused on Alice, a Dalmatian dog with her ears flapping and lips slapping as she sat on top of a Clydesdale-pulled wagon. In the late shots, the commercial panned out to identify hills dotted with wind turbines, with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” not-so-subtly reinforcing the theme and slogan, “Now Brewed with Wind Power.” Anheuser-Busch now has plans to purchase as much renewable electricity as is used to brew more than 20 billion 12 oz. servings of beer each year.

A Compilation of Super Bowl Commercials & Legacies

Beginning after the coin toss and ending after the final play that designated Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Super Bowl LIV champions, a total of 96 commercials aired in the southeast Florida television region.

Clearly, the medium of television used the Super Bowl ads as an opportunity to promote its own interests. CBS, this year’s network host of the big game, promoted Paramount+, which will be the reincarnation of CBS All Access, as well as its current show, “Clarice,” “Silence of the Lambs,” and “The Equalizer.” A few film announcements filled out the most featured category.

None of these, however, remotely addressed the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. But some companies did come a bit closer than others to merge social justice, economic justice, and climate crisis issues.

Jeep Seeks Reconciliation

Tackling the climate crisis will definitely take compromise. Jeep and the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) used a chapel in the middle of the US to suggest a possible metaphorical reconciliation site for a nation of broken citizens who remain deeply terrified of one another.

The Washington Post called the commercial “baffling,” arguing that, while Springsteen has stood strong over his career for the marginalized and the disenfranchised, this commercial did little but endorse a car company “whose products are hastening the death of our planet — a death that the boomer demo being courted with this two-minute clip won’t have to witness.”

Cabela’s Pitches Nature As Antidote For Isolation

“You may be feeling a little cooped up,” said the narrator of an outdoors-themed ad from Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. “In these trying times, we need nature more than ever.” The video is the company’s first ever Super Bowl ad, and it reminds viewers to “Get Back to Nature” because “the great outdoors are wide open. Now’s our chance to “connect with the ones we love the most.” Research shows that the frequency of greenspace use and a regular dose of nature are associated with increased levels of self‐esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness and decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Ecosystems across the globe are vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, of course, as are the communities that depend on them. Being closer to nature can make people much more aware of how ecosystems can also protect people from climate change impacts, so the Cabela’s commercial (setting aside the killing involved with lots of their sporting goods) may, indeed, heighten public and political awareness and engagement on the topic.

Animal-Free Milk — Simplicity In Production & Product

Oatly, an oat-milk company, showed its chief executive Toni Petersson standing at a keyboard in the middle of a field. “Wow! Wow!” he sang. “No cow!” The commercial grabbed plenty of social-media attention, both good and bad. Immediately after the ad was shown, the Oatly website started offering a T-shirt that said across the front: “I totally hated that Oatly commercial.”

What the commercial did accomplish successfully was to draw attention to plant-based or non-dairy milk alternatives, which are the fast growing segment in newer food product development category of functional and specialty beverage across the globe. In doing so, the practices of industrial agriculture, which contribute about 25 to 30% to global greenhouse gas emissions, further accelerating climate change, entered into our Super Bowl discussions. Oatley is just one of the products that comprise a massive cultural shift away from mass-produced meat and dairy. We’ve written on this topic a lot here at CleanTechnica, including articles about vegan meat, Beyond Meat’s inauspicious start at McDonald’s, Impossible Foods growth in the US marketplace, and JUST eggs (which are eggless).

Chipotle Wins for Sustainability Efforts Among Super Bowl Ads

It sounds incongruous at first, doesn’t it, to think that a burrito could change the world? Chipotle aired a spot focused on its sustainability efforts, including “reducing carbon emissions, saving water, and supporting local growers.” A young boy instructs his sister how to imagine how much impact a burrito could have on agriculture. “It could change how we plant things and grow things,” he narrates over footage of farmers. “And improve the dirt where we grow those things.” A burrito can even alter the process of watering, picking, and transporting food. “It could make us more responsible and sustainable,” he says.

The use of sustainable agriculture can improve the resilience of ecosystems to climate change. A commercial like this introduces the idea to many people that agriculture and ecosystems are not independent of one another but, rather, contribute together to carbon emissions, food security, land prices, transportation, storage, food safety, labor, and consumer prices.

GM’s 2021 Super Bowl Ads

A lot of the talk around the clean, green, and sustainability virtual world about this year’s Super Bowl ads has focused largely on GM’s “No Way Norway” entry. Will Ferrell convinces his pals Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina to join him in Norway to throw the proverbial gauntlet to that country’s dominance of the world’s EV market.

As he bursts onto Scandinavian terrain, Ferrell is disappointed that everything around him is so, well, adorable. And the comic trio is lost — either in Sweden or Finland. From its first frames, in which Ferrell smashes a globe, saying, “Well, I won’t stand for it,” the tone is nationalistic and small-minded. Throughout the commercial, the cast is angry, violent, yelling, a bit too spontaneous, and kinda ignorant. The comedy serves to reinforce a global image of Americans as self-serving boors.

Doesn’t really say much for the EVs they’re supposedly promoting, does it?

Then again, maybe this comedic approach is a kind of public apology, a self-deprecating way of saying we could’ve and should’ve done a lot more to promote zero transportation emissions. GM’s embrace of electric vehicles is a huge shift from its corporate stance just 4 years ago, when CEO Mary Barra lavished praise on newly-elected President Donald Trump while pleading to alleviate the unfairness of CAFE fuel economy standards. Had they stuck, these regulations would have required GM vehicles to reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2026.

GM has itself to blame, in part, advocates say, for the US trailing Norway in EV market share after decades of lobbying against government efforts to rein in emissions and gas consumption.

This is the same GM that killed its EV1, arguing that there was no demand for the vehicle. Translation: At that moment in time in 1996, sales couldn’t equal production costs, and the company wasn’t ready to invest in a losing proposition — even for the sake of saving the planet.

Cadillac Lyriq — A Strange Appeal In Strange Times

Cadillac invoked the 1990 Tim Burton film “Edward Scissorhands” with Timothée Chalamet in the role of Edgar, the son of the protagonist. His mother is played by a star of the original film, Winona Ryder, who has made a comeback in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” The Cadillac Lyriq is equipped with Super Cruise hands-free driver assistance, allowing Edgar to theoretically drive unhindered. This commercial was just weird enough to make its message stick, and it did illuminate to some viewers that there’s no escaping EVs as a here-to-stay force in the current US automotive industry.

Final Thoughts About Sustainability & The 2021 Super Bowl Ads

To make sure money is used for the right purpose, companies take notice of whether the Super Bowl is a worthy investment by analyzing the audience of commercials, what industries they are in, how did Super Bowl advertising influence companies historically, and where are the potential opportunities.

The companies featured in this article used their Super Bowl spots to make a statement — about what they stand for as organizations, what issues they’re focused on solving, and where they’re focused on creating impact. They have acknowledged that both they and we must be able to sustain the global environment as a whole, including the people who live in it, through the decisions we make about lifestyle and profitability.

Image provided by Cadillac.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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