Cute babies vs. Super Bowl 52
Something amazing happened during last year's Super Bowl, and I'm not talking about the Patriots comeback.
Super Bowl commercials got serious.
Lately, I've been thinking about what that means about us as Americans. I've also wondered if it will continue this year. Do we want it to continue?
Before I became a Creative Director and made commercials for a living, I taught high school history for a very short time. I always felt it was essential for students to keep up with current events. So, at the beginning of each class, I would have different students give a brief recap of events from the past few days.
One year, on the Monday after the Super Bowl, my most socially-conscience student, Josh recapped the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl commercials. He started off his recap saying, “Most of the Super Bowl Ads featured cute babies or animals … because this country is obsessed with babies and animals. It’s how we get people to consume more.”
Everyone laughed, including me. I thought to myself, “Oh Josh, you Lefty! You’re gonna have so much fun at college. You’ll protest everything. Have fun storming the castle!”
But Josh was right, and the more I paid attention to the Super Bowl over the next many years, Josh continued to be right.
At the Super Bowl, babies and animals are like death and taxes. You’re going to see both if you keep watching.
People love babies and animals. Duh!
Look, it’s not rocket science and I'm not telling you anything you don't know.
99.999999999% of human beings love babies and/or animals.
The people who don’t love either are probably not watching the Super Bowl anyway. They’re writing lengthy manifestos in their cabins in Montana.
Babies and animals are low-hanging fruit, the lowest common denominator, the simplest crowd pleasers. During the Super Bowl broadcast, advertisers are looking to please everyone or more importantly, offend no one. So, they anchor their spots with the two most beloved living things on this planet. We all get it.
Look, I realize I'm not telling you anything that you don't know already.
But, I think it's important to understand what a huge shift there was in Super Bowl advertising creative in 2017 vs. 2016.
Just look at Vogue’s list of the “Top Super Bowl Commercials of Super Bowl 50” in 2016.
A large percentage of the commercials during the game featured either a baby or an animal in a primary role. A commerical about wiener dogs that pushes ketchup. Commercials about babies born during the Super Bowl, or a baby launching himself out of a uterus to eat Doritos (barf!). How about a flock of sheep singing Queen Songs?
And finally, a commercial about a man taking a Marmot on a romantic camping trip. This spot ends with the obviously lonely man, sitting in a secluded area in the woods attempting to kiss the Marmot. Yes, 2016 … the year bestiality and football mixed together. ‘MERICA!
This was also the year that the Baby Animal Corollary reached its zenith with the nightmarish PuppyMonkeyBaby commercial from Mountain Dew.
This commercial put all the cards on the table in a demented orgy of Super Bowl tropes. If you’ve watched it … I beg you not to watch it again. If you haven’t, like watching Schindler’s List, you must do it at least once.
Personally, I thought I would enjoy this commercial a lot more because I’d been tracking the baby/animal connection for decades. But like Mountain Dew, the commercial left me with a bubbling pool of sweet poison in the basement of my soul.
Now, my career goal is to create a commercial where thePuppyMonkeyBaby is launched into space on the first Tesla-Funded Mars Probe.
But, what do I know? The PuppyMonkeyBaby spot and the other commercials discussed were very popular. So … shut up, Mike.
It’s obvious why these ads work. The Super Bowl is one of the highest rated TV events of the year; bringing together a massive cross-section of people. Folks who could care less about Tom Brady’s injured hand or Nick Foles’ passer rating go to Super Bowl parties, buy squares and watch the commercials to be entertained for four hours.
Seeing a cute baby or a mischievous animal in a commercial releases a chemical in all of us. These adorable creatures make us feel empathy and love for a just brief fleeting moment. A perfect time to sell us shit we don’t need.
How effective is this creative tactic?
Another well-rated spot in 2016 was a poignant PSA against domestic violence. As we know, more domestic violence incidents occur on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s a very serious and important subject that demands our attention. The first image of the PSA was a cute cat.
2017 — advertisers flip the script
But something happened in 2017. A certain someone entered our lives. Somebody with a worse haircut than the Puppymonkeybaby.
Americans on both sides of the aisle became a lot more engaged in politics and social discussions. Likewise, many commercials during Super Bowl 51 took on a more serious tone and tried to say something more substantial. The commercials became political statements and brands told you exactly how they felt.
84 Lumber went the furthest with an anti-nativist commercial that depicted a Mexican Family migrating to this country. The full spot was actually turned down by Fox who demanded changes. This spot was, by far, the most controversial ad in the history of the Super Bowl. People discussed it for days after.
How did the commercials go over?
Well, like America in 2017, the reception depended on who you asked.
As I looked back over the “Top Super Bowl Commercials” lists from last year, the political ads appeared in both the best and worst categories.
Many people supported the advertisers and brands trying to say more with their commercials, but many felt the ads went too far.
The larger discussion became … Do we want commercials to be political? Or, should the Super Bowl be a politics-free zone?
It’s an incredibly complicated issue, and I don’t have the answer. All I have are more questions.
On the one hand, the Super Bowl is a football game. It’s a dumb kids' game played by men throwing a weirdly shaped ball and running around in silly gladiator uniforms. Is this the forum to discuss serious issues? Do we want political ideology wedged between conversations involving Terry Bradshaw and a human named, “The Gronk?”
Also, can’t we just have this one thing not be corrupted by politics? I’m reminded of the pending collapse of this empire every time I go online. Can we PLEASE just have this one stupid football game!?
Furthermore, should companies and brands even try to be political in their advertising creative? It’s a massive risk. They risk alienating an entire segment of the population. Plus, saying something smart and poignant isn’t easy. Even somebody as talented as Aaron Sorkin can come off looking like a bore.
The sanctity of the Super Bowl
On the other hand, what are we corrupting? Has the Super Bowl ever been a politics-free zone?
Let’s consider removing ALL the commercials from the Super Bowl.
If the game ran commercial-free would the politics go away too?
Imagine it, a Super Bowl with no advertisements. Just the broadcast. Go through it in your mind.
Would you be told how to feel about the United States? Would there be flags and songs sung about the virtues of our country? Would there be an interview with the President?
Would you be told how to feel about the military? Would there be soldiers on the field? Military vehicles of any kind?
Would you be shown images of female stereotypes? Girls in sexually provocative outfits cheering on their favorite teams? Would females play a part in the broadcast? What part?
Why Super Bowl 52 is important
I’m sincere when I say; I’m not trying to lead you to feel a certain way, just to ask more questions. I don’t know where I stand, and the way I feel changes day-to-day.
As a forty-five-year-old man, I’m okay being serious and hearing people’s ideas and view point.
I want to examine issues where there is no clear answer.
I’m also okay with brands telling me what they think. I’m okay with a company telling me what they stand for if they want to do that. I appreciate it. It makes my life easier and tell me where to spend my money. It also offers an opportunity for a company to say the opposite and win customers, if they’re brave enough. I appreciate an overt show of ideology than a subtle or institutional one.
I am going to be very interested to see how advertisers approach commercials this year. Americans have been fighting for three years straight. We can’t seem to agree on anything. Many of us are searching for things that we can all agree on.
That’s why Justin Timberlake is performing at halftime. I don’t care who you are…that dude can sing, and dance.
I just want us to keep talking. Keep thinking.
Even if it’s uncomfortable and emotional, Americans can still challenge each other and debate each other, so we don’t kill each other, right?
Art and creative expression can let the pressure out of the pressure cooker. Advertising and commercials can do this too.
Because the road to civil war is lined with a lot of PuppyMonkeyBabies.
But, who am I? You tell me what you think. I’ll listen.