The Super Bowl thanks its biggest sponsor, God

Ogilvy & Mather's chief creative officer, North America considers how football's faithful protect their own

You know the brief: the "challenge" to overcome is the organization’s habit of maiming and killing its best employees. The challenge is a series of lab reports on the battered brains of its past practitioners. The challenge is a major motion picture, bluntly titled "Concussion," released a few weeks before the organization’s biggest event.

It’s a tough brief, but it’s not an impossible one. You could turn your marketing efforts over to God.

During the 2016 Super Bowl, God’s work was on TV in all its power and glory.

We repeatedly saw commercials of children — precious, little, smiling — who, but for the Super Bowl, might never have been born. Football is the Creator, the life-giver, God, and the NFL is its one true and only church. (In fairness, the NFL should share the claim with Budweiser.) The commercials might have been regarded as sly and wry, and allowed to pass by, until the tagline burned up on the screen: "Football is family."

Is it? Maybe it depends on the family you talk to. What do the grandchildren of Ken Stabler say? What does the daughter of Junior Seau say, when she says what she wouldn’t say at her father’s posthumous induction in Canton at the league’s holiest shrine? What do the children of Joe Montana say, when their father tells them his hands, elbow and knees hurt too much for him to go skiing with them?

Before kickoff, we saw Montana walk to the center of the field for the coin toss, and the nation held its breath and hoped: not that Montana would look as young and golden and lithe as he once did, but that he would be able to walk without limping.

The church managed the ritual presentation of past Super Bowls with ruthless precision. When, for a brief moment, one of the heroes appeared with a cane, the broadcast switched to another camera, which kept the cane well out of the frame.

The church feels justified, no doubt. It is under attack from infidels and unbelievers. Dissent is open. Reformers raise their voices. Church pronouncements on science meet with scorn, and ridicule. So the NFL does what every great church does in a crisis: it grows strict and intolerant, and it turns to mystery and marketing. This was shrewd of the NFL, but not quite shrewd enough.

"Football is family." The church would like us to turn away from the broken families and stare upon the Manning Family, bright, fecund and happy. The broadcast camera kept cutting to this blessed skybox, where they shone. Even the CBS announcers, after praising Peyton Manning as a model of virtue and humility, felt compelled to add: he "really loves football."

And — this is easy, feel free to play along — when the great choir kicked in at half time, you were humbled by the spectacle, overcome with awe, ready to renounce all doubts. You knew that when the Rapture comes, it will look like this.

It all might have worked, too. While it was clever and cunning, it wasn’t clever or cunning enough. Because when the words that were written in the brief broke into the open field for all to see, when "Football is family" appeared in type on the screen, the crudeness and cynicism of the intention was exposed. Mystery and emotion fell away, and every sinner was practically invited to argue with the great claim. As every marketer knows, a tagline shouldn’t invite the world to pick a fight with it. God is a mighty marketer, but not an infallible one.

Steve Simpson is Ogilvy & Mather's chief creative officer, North America.

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