The brigade of commercials for NBC’s Sunday telecast of Super Bowl LII trod gently on political issues and went for heartstrings and easy laughs.
The mostly uplifting tone of the spots is a sign advertisers believed that viewers of TV’s most-watched event of the year needed a break from the partisan rancor in public discourse during the first year of the Trump presidency.
The political divisiveness spilled into the NFL season as President Trump has been strident in his criticism of players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality. The on-field controversy has been cited as a factor in declining TV ratings for NFL contests this season.
There was no sign of such protests before the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl title over the favored New England Patriots by a score of 41-33 in Minneapolis.
The only commercial that alluded to the conflict was an ad for Blacture, a new website for black culture. The start-up’s spot showed Fugees co-founder Pras, a partner in the venture, standing on the stage of an empty theater and removing black tape that covered his mouth.
But, overall, there were no commercials approaching the overt political messages about immigration and women’s empowerment that viewers saw last year in the months after the presidential election.
“It was a much more upbeat commercial atmosphere than last year,” said Chris Chase, an attorney for Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz who represented some of the advertisers buying time in the game.
Diversity messages during TV’s biggest ad showcase were celebratory in nature. T-Mobile’s “Change starts now” ad used a continuous shot of cute babies. Kraft offered up photos — submitted by viewers during the game — that showed an array of gay parents, straight couples and single dads of all races topped with the line “there is no one right way to family.” Coca-Cola served up a colorful montage of diverse couples and young people.
A Stella Artois spot making a pitch for Matt Damon’s clean water initiative was the only blatant issue-oriented play — hardly controversial.
Car accessories manufacturer WeatherTech offered the closest thing to a Trump-like populist message. It showed footage of a plant being built followed by the tagline: “At Weather Tech, we built our factory to be right here in America. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?”
The humor in the ads avoided the edginess seen in previous years, trying hard to entertain while not offending anyone.
With hyper-awareness of the #MeToo movement throughout the media industry, portrayals of women were scant, perhaps to avoid scrutiny. Unlike previous years, the Super Bowl did not feature a commercial with a woman in a bikini.
Toyota set the emotional bar with its opening spot after the kickoff with the story of Paralympic star and Canadian Alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft.
Verizon ran a spot using real-life audio of disaster victims thanking first responders and firefighters over footage and stills of rescue efforts.
Dodge Ram trucks used similar images, along with soldiers returning from their service and praying football players, over audio of a sermon given by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Feb. 4, 1968.
Appropriation of historic figures and events for an ad is always a risk. (Historian Michael Beschloss noted on Twitter that King’s sermon given 50 years ago also “advised people not to spend too much money on their cars.”)
Budweiser highlighted its efforts to provide canned drinking water to natural disaster victims in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and California with Skylar Grey’s acoustic version of “Stand By Me” playing underneath. Carmaker Hyundai played up its contributions to childhood cancer research.
Celebrities were in large supply and provided the bulk of the comedy. Danny DeVito was a human M&M who avoids getting eaten but gets slammed by a bus. Chris Pratt mocked his leading-man status in a spot for Michelob Ultra. Tiffany Haddish, a real-life Groupon addict, appeared in the e-commerce company’s spot. Keanu Reeves surfed on a motorcycle for Squarespace.com.
The Super Bowl has been around long enough that viewers are now treated to ads with homages to past Super Bowl ads.
Tide used “Stranger Things” star David Harbour in a series of commercials that played off past big game ad tropes, featuring Old Spice guy — the ad breakout of 2010 — in one of them. Harbour also appeared in a spoof of a sexy Mr. Clean spot that was a hit in the game a few years back. (Packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble owns the Mr. Clean, Old Spice and Tide brands).
Pepsi paid tribute to the pop culture touchstones it has featured in the game over the years — a moon-walking Michael Jackson, “Back to the Future,” and Cindy Crawford.
The one big strategic surprise on the night was from Netflix, which ran an ad announcing its expensive sci-fi feature “The Cloverfield Paradox” would begin streaming after the game.
The move was a major finger in the eye to NBC, which built up the post-Super Bowl airing of an epochal “This Is Us” episode for weeks. But for $5 million a commercial, the network clearly was not going to balk at taking a competitor’s money.