Super Bowl 2015: A year for kinder, gentler ads?

As the NFL faces scrutiny over the conduct of players and its own response, will advertisers play a cautious game this year?

The National Football League has weathered sharp criticism of the way it handled domestic-violence scandals among its players. Should the Super Bowl do more to promote family values?

A November survey of consumers and advertising executives by the American Association of Advertising Agencies found that 62% of Americans and 65% of ad folk thought these scandals would affect Super Bowl 2015 advertising.

Survey respondents thought ads should be more family-focused and specifically address issues surrounding domestic violence, in addition to the NFL running more PSAs.

The 4As concluded, "Advertising professionals cited the Super Bowl as 'an opportunity to be a platform for domestic violence awareness,' and voiced hope that advertisers would 'strike the right tone and do something that feels genuine in terms of reaching out to women.'"

The NFL on Monday announced it will donate a 30-second advertising spot during the first quarter of the Super Bowl for a PSA on behalf of No More, an organization that addresses domestic violence and sexual assault. The NFL covered the production costs of the ad, which was created by the league's agency, Grey.

The lead-up to the big game has already featured a few fatherhood-focused ads from Toyota, Nissan and Dove. But there's a discrepancy in any survey between what people say and what they actually do, according to Todd Tilford, chief creative officer for FCB Chicago. "I don’t think it's affecting how people are advertising on the Super Bowl, nor who is advertising nor how much advertising is being done," he said.

Nor is there any evidence that brands have pulled out or changed their ads. Super Bowl ad sales begin in the upfronts in spring of the previous year and continue through January. On Jan. 7, NBC Sports announced that the game was 95% sold out; spots are going for $4.4 to $4.5 million per 30-second spot.

Michael Neuman, managing partner of Scout Sports and Entertainment, pointed out that NBC must air and approve commercials before they run, so it might be possible to change a commercial if an advertiser wanted to go kinder and gentler – but it would be very difficult.

"It's possible there was creative for any brand created months ago that may not be in the best interest of the brand today based on the theme and issues within the NFL," Neuman said. He didn't specifically know of any, but he presumed that if an advertiser did change its spots, we'd hear about it from them.

Should brands be more cautious than they have been to date? Tilford said there's still a margin of safety. "Domestic violence is obviously an extremely serious issue, but I think people see the different between the issue and the NFL itself, which is a huge organization and a big part of American culture. With any organization that large there will be issues with some of the individuals within it. I think most people recognize that and separate the two."

Consumer research by Horizon Media supports that view. Looking at celebrity scandals, it found that consumers don't necessarily blame the brands that are sponsors of celebrities involved in scandals.

Sam Mogilner, director of Scout Sports and Entertainment, a unit of Horizon Media, told Campaign, "As long as it's dealt with in a good fashion, consumers tend to move on." That said, the research also found that the type of scandal made a difference. "Domestic violence is harder to bounce back from than something personal [like a drug problem]."

Indeed, NFL players get in trouble regularly, running dogfights or pulling out guns in nightclubs. As long as players show remorse and receive appropriate punishment, we've been willing to forgive them.

Besides, who wants to cancel their Super Bowl party? It's not just a sporting event, Neuman said: "It's an iconic pop-culture moment for everyone, not just sports fans." He points out that two things besides football make this must-see TV: the fabulous half-time shows and the fascinating, expensively produced commercials that have taken on a life of their own.

He noted that few advertisers want to spark a negative reaction. While the original dot-com era was an era of excess (in Super Bowl advertising like everything else), brands today want the best value for their $4.5 million. That means advertising that creates positive associations with the brand, like GoDaddy's puppy.

It's possible to have it both ways, as NFL sponsor CoverGirl recently showed by speaking out against domestic violence without withdrawing its advertising.

We may be willing to forgive and/or forget, but this is still the NFL's game to lose. "The NFL is on probation. Right now, advertisers feel free to do business with them. And true football fans will likely turn up despite the controversy," said David Berne, SVP and director of strategic planning for RPA.

"But if the next offense is not deftly handled, there will be consequences. If they are perceived as not learning lessons from recent missteps, advertisers will use their leverage to show they are on the right side of the issues and enforce behaviors on the NFL that support the kind of image they are comfortable being associated with."

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