With Super Bowl LII this Sunday, please allow me to take you on a nostalgic trip to visit the ghosts of Super Bowl commercials past.
Remember when Bud tried to sell you a beer with images of its famous Clydesdales, and Coke tried to sell you a soda with a cute kid, Mean Joe Greene, and a Steelers jersey? Ah, simpler times. But as Super Bowl commercials’ budgets and productions have gotten more elaborate the commercials have become increasingly preachy, with often the so called socially responsible messaging having nothing to do with the product they are selling.
Take last year’s collection of Super Bowl ads where both Anheuser Busch and 84 Lumber ran immigration themed commercials, and Audi’s Super Bowl ad was clearly intended to show they are as much concerned with gender inequality as selling cars. The year before Colgate wanted to make sure to remind us not to waste fresh water.
Although it may seem odd to spend $5 million on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to advertise something other than your product, it is now common practice. Advertisers tell us they do this to appeal to Millennials. According to Omnicom Group's Cone Communications, 70 percent of Millennials will spend more on brands that support causes — and with Millennials now surpassing Baby Boomers as the largest purchasing group, numbers like this get corporate America’s attention.
Despite these claims and corporate investments along these lines, some are skeptical. Robert Waldinger, who is the current Director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, contends that 80 percent of Millennials’ life goal is to be rich, and 50 percent of Millennials say one of their life goals is to be famous. If those numbers are even close to accurate, does this suggest to you a generation that is so much more altruistic than previous generations, that their buying criteria will be based on whether a corporation is considered socially responsible?
The big problem with socially responsible advertising campaigns is that it often takes sides on hot button issues, which can infuriate potential consumers who may not agree. Take last year’s Super Bowl ads that highlighted a pro-immigration message only weeks after this was a divisive political issue in the 2016 election. One can imagine these commercials didn’t go over well with consumers that believed they were a not-so-veiled condemnation of their personal political views.
There is also evidence to suggest that last year’s socially responsible Super Bowl advertising didn’t always produce the desired result. Take InBev, which owns Budweiser and Anheuser Busch. After running the controversial Super Bowl ad last year, they had by any measure an awful sales year in the United States, where sales fell a whopping 5.6 percent in the third quarter alone. But InBev, not to be deterred by this setback, is doubling down on another socially responsible ad in this year’s Super Bowl. Stella Artois, an InBev brand of bottled beer has already shot a commercial for this year’s game starring Matt Damon, to help promote water.com in an effort to provide clean water for one million people in the next five years.
Of course, lurking behind all these socially responsible ads is the implication that corporations are obligated to do more than just business, that somehow employing people, producing a product or service that helps people at an equitable price, and hopefully squeaking out a profit isn’t enough. If they don’t do more than that, they are somehow greedy.
The late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman believed otherwise, arguing, "There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."
Friedman believed that it is the corporation’s duty to look after the best interest of the shareholders and in turn it should be the shareholders, with their own profits, to decide how and where their money should be spent. In other words, if you really believe in a cause, look in the mirror and don’t pass the buck on to a middleman, as only individuals have a responsibilitity to give and corporations are merely artificial entities.
Outside of who will be the winners of Sunday’s game, the biggest question of the day might be, will corporate America decide to lecture or entertain us on Sunday?
Matthew Kastel is a 25-year veteran of working as an executive in the world of sports, including professional teams, organizations, and some of the largest vendors in the industry. Matt has also written two novels and teaches and lectures at universities on the business of sports. For more information you can visit his website at thirdstrikeproductions.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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