When Judith McDonnell, Ph.D., thinks of her favorite Super Bowl commercial, she easily recalls Coca-Cola's 1980 advertisement where the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive tackle, ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, walks beneath the football stadium and shares a Coke with a young fan. The ad has become so well known that the two reunited nearly 40 years later for a new video shot for the Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials 2016 special.
As a long-time sociology professor and avid football fan, McDonnell has witnessed the evolution of Super Bowl messaging. Super Bowl ads — known for their humor, unpredictability, and ability to tug at the heartstrings — have captured the attention of millions across America and abroad. While many people will watch to see who comes out on top in the Chiefs vs. 49ers game this Sunday, others will tune in for the ads.
“I teach ‘Sociology of Sport’ and the class after the Super Bowl, students are often talking about their favorite ads, rather than the game,” says McDonnell.
According to Forbes, 113 million viewers watched last year’s big game, with McDonnell emphasizing that companies spend approximately $7 million for a 30-second commercial. The ads typically promote sportswear, cars, Procter & Gamble products, beer, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola. While individuals watch these ads as a means of entertainment, McDonnell notes that the commercials say a lot about American society, too.
Pop culture, condensed
Americans’ fixation with celebrities shines through Super Bowl ads, notes McDonnell. Whether it’s Jack Harlow, Missy Elliott, and Elton John teaming up for a 2023 Doritos ad or Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck promoting Dunkin’ that same year, our famous figures excite viewers.
This year, McDonnell says Taylor Swift’s relationship with Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the movie Barbie could influence how viewers receive ads. A recent CNN article reported that, because of Swift, health and beauty companies are joining the Super Bowl ad lineup with commercials aimed at women; her attendance at previous Chiefs games has a chance of increased female viewership for Sunday’s game. Additionally, Barbie — with its messaging pertaining to feminism, self-confidence, and toxic masculinity — has raised the public’s consciousness on women representation and empowerment.
“It will be interesting to see how many ads are geared toward women and women empowerment,” McDonnell says, noting that Dove is expected to have an ad drawing attention to the issue of girls quitting sports because of low body confidence. “Football is one of the last bastions of masculinity and here we had the summer and fall of interesting cultural representation of women; how people receive the ads might be really different.”
Projecting patriotism, inclusivity
Between footage of the nation’s flag, the military, and massive Clydesdale horses thundering across terrain, game day ads display a high level of American patriotism and strength.
“Football is a brute strength sport with a lot of intelligence, and these big, amazing bodies are doing amazing things,” McDonnell says, noting how the idea of American strength aligns with the sport.
America’s a competitive nation, and companies often use this tension in their ads to bring people together.
As much as sports divide us, they can unite us, McDonnell says. Football can be perceived as a celebration of masculinity, but Super Bowl ad messaging has shifted over time with more emphasis on women, social issues, diversity, and inclusion.
“Companies are projecting an image of inclusiveness, like ‘Everybody buys our products, regardless of race, gender, sexuality,’” McDonnell says.
She notes that it’s easy for individuals to start looking at Super Bowl ads through a sociological lens; all they need are a few guided questions.
“First, look at who you think the ad’s targeting. Then look at the diversity, equity, and inclusion ideas in the ads: Are we seeing same-sex couples? Are we seeing African American couples? Are we seeing people who look like they're Asian American? How many ads pull you into a feeling state?” says McDonnell, who’s ready for Tuesday’s class where she can talk with students about what they observed about the fans, commercials, and game.