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In an intensely political year, Super Bowl ads went escapist

Facebook, Hummer, and Snickers relied on celeb cameos and absurd comedy instead of taking a stand.

A still from this year’s TurboTax Super Bowl commercial, which includes a wannabe viral dance.
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Post Malone buys Bud Light Seltzer at a gas station. Winona Ryder goes to Winona, Minnesota. Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott have a dance battle showdown in the Old West.

These are just a handful of this year’s Super Bowl ads, and for the most part, they’re a pretty good summary of what viewers saw during the Big Game: practically no politics from brands. Celebrity cameos are nothing new for the year’s biggest advertising bonanza, but what’s notable about the 2020 Super Bowl commercials is that during arguably the most contentious election of the past two decades, brands decided to go escapist — literally, in at least three cases in which the dominant theme was “outer space.”

There were notable exceptions: President Trump and Mike Bloomberg both had campaign ads, with the latter devoting his airtime to a mother who had lost her son to gun violence. Kia’s ad was a letter from Oakland Raiders player Josh Jacobs to his younger self as a homeless child (while also presenting the somewhat flawed theory that the solution to prevent youth homelessness is to become very good at football). The most affecting politically tinged ad came from the NFL itself, whose spot centered on Corey Jones, the cousin of a retired NFL player, who was shot to death by a plainclothes police officer.

For the most part, though, this year’s Super Bowl ads barely had anything to say. TurboTax tried to make a TikTok dance. Planters murdered Mr. Peanut. The rest of the brands mostly just relied on puns. Why?

Brands have been more comfortable getting political in the past few years

The 2020 Super Bowl ads are a far cry from the activist tone that many companies have tried on since 2016. Marketing experts have said that since protests and public outrage are constants in the media, it’s sometimes worth the immediate risk for brands to make a statement.

Perhaps the most famous example is Nike’s partnership with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the subject of controversy after kneeling during the national anthem to protest anti-black police brutality in 2016. For the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign, the athletic brand cast him in a commercial with the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Though the ad predictably was a lightning rod for conservatives and led to a small boycott, it was ultimately a win for the brand, whose stock went up 5 percent over about two weeks, amounting to a $6 billion increase in value.

“It used to be you didn’t want to upset anyone,” Jessica Li, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Kansas, told Vox in December 2018. “But studies show that the country is very divided, and if it’s divided politically, brands might feel like they’re able to take a stronger stand and get more support from their target market. It’s a way for them to get people talking about their brand.”

Shoppers are now increasingly making political statements based on how they spend their money. SoulCycle, Equinox, Home Depot, LL Bean, and other household brands have been the subject of boycotts from progressives due to their ties to Trump.

As Nadra Nittle wrote for Vox, “Since the dawn of the industrial age, corporations have battled the idea that they’re evil. While that perception hasn’t vanished, companies increasingly grapple with the notion that to do good, they must act. Today, greed and exploitation continue to mark businesses as morally bankrupt, but so does failure to speak out during an age when many refuse to tolerate silence, politeness, and thoughts and prayers any longer.”

In a time when young consumers care deeply about brands who champion social causes, why tiptoe around the most divisive presidential election in recent memory?

So why didn’t more brands make a statement during this year’s Super Bowl?

A few years ago, politics were everywhere during the Super Bowl. In 2017, instead of peddling its usual Midwestern ethos, Budweiser highlighted its immigrant roots, which many took as a rebuke of Trump’s immigration policies. In 2018, Toyota turned a joke setup — a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim get into a truck — to make a statement on diversity.

Much of this year’s Super Bowl ad content takes place in a world far removed from these issues, however: When Snickers promised to “fix the world,” what it really addressed were babies named Kale and adult men riding scooters. Multiple brands used surrealism and absurdism for laughs. Sodastream, Walmart, and Olay took their commercials to outer space, as though Earth is beyond saving.

Part of this is likely because viewers don’t necessarily love it when their commercials get political. According to a poll from Morning Consult, most viewers think the Super Bowl is an “inappropriate” place for brands to make political statements, with Republicans 80 percent more likely to believe so. It’s also a risk: Plenty of brands have missed the mark by spending big budgets on clumsy or offensive ads, such as the use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice to sell Chryslers, or Kendall Jenner solving America’s social justice issues by handing a cop a Pepsi.

Of course, there’s also the sense that as politics continues to reach every corner of our lives, brands would rather see their products as a break from all that. Facebook, which would probably love us all to forget about politics, centered its Super Bowl commercial on the communities of Facebook groups. As Diego Scotti, Verizon’s chief marketing officer, told Variety before last year’s Super Bowl, “Creating controversy for the sake of creating controversy is not helpful for anybody. We are in a moment when positivity is something that we all need.”

Brands seem to be taking that message to heart this year. In a world where even killing off a mascot can be seen as politically contentious — Planters had to pause its campaign in which Mr. Peanut falls to his death after a car accident in the wake of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash — many companies evidently feel that the safest road is the one where none of the earth’s problems are solved, only escaped.