This year’s Super Bowl capped off a politically divisive season for the NFL, filled with protests and presidential politics. Commercials that opted for a more serious tone were therefore left with a tricky task to fulfill. They had to appear woke but, at the same time, somehow pander to the broadest demographic possible. The result? A slew of the usual ads depicting the convergence of a fractured America, but void of any overtly political messages.
These seven commercials best captured these ham-handed attempts to tell Americans: Hey, we’re all in this together.
MassMutual opened their spot with our daily hellscape of bad news: There were allusions to politics, environmental disasters and sexual misconduct. But then it pivots to sharing good news — like the stories of those bikers who escorted a bullied kid to school, or the Jewish congregation that welcomed Muslims into their temple when their mosque burned down. “Our world is full of people looking out for each other,” says a voice-over, as people of different races and ages sing the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You.”
Budweiser chose a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” to play throughout a one-minute commercial depicting the company’s recent disaster relief efforts. It begins with a general manager waking up early in the morning to head to work at a brewery in Cartersville, Ga. The usual red beer cans are swapped for a white variety that the workers then fill with fresh water and load into semi-trucks. Back at home, the manager’s presumed wife proudly gazes at a TV screen, on which a news show’s chyron reads, “Disaster relief efforts in action.”
It’s a little bit self-congratulatory, but that’s how Super Bowl commercials tend to be. As the camera zooms out on a truck leaving the factory, the names of recipient states and territories flash on screen: Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, California. Budweiser wants Americans to know that they’ll stand by them wherever, whenever.
It’s like the first line of a cheesy joke: A rabbi, a priest, an imam and a Buddhist monk get into a Toyota together. Turns out, they’re all going to the big game — and when they join a couple of nuns, it’s clear that everyone’s praying for their side to win. The tagline: “We’re all one team.”
Proof that trying to make a meaningful commercial about the greatness of America can backfire spectacularly, Dodge decided to use the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to sell its Ram trucks. Interspersed with footage that shows soldiers, relief workers, cowboys, medical technicians and football players, the commercial uses a sermon known as “The Drum Major Instinct.” People were very unhappy with the idea that one of King’s sermons — one that actually preaches against spending money on fancy cars! — would be used to sell pickup trucks.
This company is known for portraying its product as a magical beverage that appeals to everyone and brings them together, perhaps best captured by the commercial the “Mad Men” finale brought back to life. This year’s Super Bowl spot, named “The Wonder of Us,” tells us that there’s a different drink suited to every single type of human: kids who like balloons, youths on tree swings, lovey-dovey beachgoers and other romanticized beings. “There’s a Coke for we, and us,” noticeably diverse voices say. “And there’s a Coke for you.”
Babies are always a hit in Super Bowl commercials, and this T-Mobile ad goes straight for the heartstrings. The camera pans slowly across the faces of nine babies of all different races, while actress Kerry Washington talks about how they’re all born equal. “Some might see your differences and be threatened by them. But you are unstoppable,” she says, telling the babies that they’ll go on to advocate for fair and equal pay, that they’ll love whomever they like, and that they will be “heard, not dismissed.” It’s a big shift from their commercials in previous years, which relied on celebrity humor from Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg and Kim Kardashian.
A commercial for Blacture, a website devoted to black culture, was one of the boldest of the night. It stars a sharply dressed Pras, the musician formerly of the Fugees, blindfolded and with his mouth taped over. He approaches a microphone in a concert hall. The orchestra cues up, he removes the tape and the blindfold, and walks off the stage. “Be celebrated. Not tolerated.” flashes across the screen. The mysterious commercial sent Super Bowl viewers to Google to learn more about the site — and while it had its detractors on Twitter, many celebrated the presence of a strong statement in an otherwise milquetoast night.