• Sophie H. Janicke, Ph.D.

Inspiring Super Bowl Ads 2016: Can Commercials Do More Than Sell Stuff?

When I ask my students how many of them still watch live TV, only about 20% of all hands go up. While life TV is still the most consumed media of all, the trend is clearly going away from life TV towards time-shifted viewing and the use of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. But tomorrow, even my students will all watch life TV.

The Super Bowl is the single most watched TV program of all times, and according to Nielsen had an average of 114 million viewers in 2015. It sells the most expensive advertisement slots with an average of 5 million dollars for one 30 second ad slot in this years' Super Bowl 50. Over the last decade the this price has increased 75%.

Even though this one time a year event is a grand celebration of American consumerism, I wonder if the advertisements at the Super Bowl can do more than sell us out. (Always looking to find the good in the bad!)

Every once in a while Super Bowl ads address social issues such as racial and sexual diversity, domestic violence, or the environment. Featuring the companies corporate social responsibility (or cause-related marketing) to the consumer is a trend that under specific conditions can indeed increase a consumers purchase behavior, and positive attitudes towards the brand (which eventually can lead to a greater likelihood to buy from that company, which obviously is one of the reasons why companies focus on these issues).

Whereas most scholars are interested in the effects of these socially responsible portrayals on purchase intention or brand loyalty, I am interested in the effects of these ads on people’s attitudes and behaviors regarding the issue at hand. That is, does the exposure to an ad about cyber bullying, for example, as in last year’s Super Bowl ad from Coca Cola impact people’s awareness towards the issue?

How about Coca Cola’s “America the Beautiful” commercial from 2014? Did it increase or decrease people’s attitudes towards foreigners or even immigration policy? In fact, this commercial provoked a lot of backslash and criticism from people who felt that the alteration of a patriotic American song is inappropriate. For days the rage went on in social media and was covered in a lot of news outlets (see here or here). I mean so much for an effect other than buying the product of the ad!

Cultivation theory, an old theory of mass communication, explains how repeated exposure to a specific narrative in the media can effect our social understanding about the world. So I wonder, what long-term effect did this 2014, 30 second Super Bowl commercial have for people over time? It certainly sparked a conversation, but did it also change attitudes or even behaviors? Or only reinforce them?

One factor that certainly had an impact on the reception of this commercial was that it was emotionally touching. In fact, a lot of the previous Super Bowl commercials pushed the heartstrings deeply. (Remember the Budweiser “Puppy Love” 2014 commercial? Now, besides eliciting empathy, some commercials (and in fact, the Coca Cola commercial from 2014 is one of them) elicit feelings of admiration, contemplation, compassion, and connectedness, a feeling of being deeply moved, even elevated, grateful, or in awe.

These are emotions I am interested in because research has shown that experiencing these “self-transcendent” emotions, or as I like to call them “inspiring emotions” impacts our well-being (see for example here, and here), makes us want to be a better person, and elicit prosocial behaviors (see here or here), even for people of our outgroup.

This is pretty powerful stuff. A specific set of emotions can impact our well-being and prosociality. I mean, wow! Most of the studies that investigated these inspiring emotions use videos to elicit the emotions and a systematic scholarship (positive media psychology) is now concerned with looking at the effects of inspiring media more in detail (www.media2inspire.com).

So, what I am curious about is what forms of advertisements at this years’ Super Bowl portray moral excellence, which is an elicitor of elevation, or appreciation of life or ones loved ones, which is an elicitor of gratitude, or extraordinary skills and beauty, which are elicitors of awe?

"What ads will completely emotionally and cognitively engage us, transport us into the ad world for 30 seconds or a minute and move us deeply, make us think, and potentially leave a mark on our well-being and prosociality?"

To give you an example of what kind of ads I am talking about, shortly before Christmas 2015 a commercial from a German Grocery store (Edeka) called "Coming Home" went viral and the story was so moving that it made me call my grandma to let her know that I loved her. Are there any Super Bowl ads this year that have this kind of effect on us as well?

Well, I went through all those that are already pre-released before tomorrow and came up with a list of TOP 4 INSPIRING SUPER BOWL ADS 2016.

Now, I have to admit, from the selection so far, nothing is as moving to me as the Edeka commercial (see above) but the Public Service Announcement (PSA) type Colgate commercial definitely got me very aware of my water usage in my house. In fact, I turn on the faucet much lower now when I wash dishes or my hands. Well-done commercial. I may buy Colgate next time but I also may be able to save water in the process.

Here is the list of inspiring pre-released Super Bowl 50 commercials:

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