University of Tennessee

Brands Bet on Products, Production, and Story – Not Issues – in Game-Day Advertising

April 13, 2021

As world events have changed consumers’ priorities, they also have altered companies’ approach to marketing, particularly on the biggest advertising day of the year. The research team of Tyler Milfeld, a marketing Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, and his advisor Dan Flint, Regal Professor of Marketing at Haslam, has been studying the shifting trends in Super Bowl ads for three years.

Compared to the past few years, brands were more reticent to present their positions on social issues during Super Bowl LV. Two brands (Microsoft and Secret) that featured social issues in their 2020 commercials did not advertise at all in this year’s game. This trend and other notables are worth focusing on, says the team, since game-day ads often influence the marketing landscape throughout the year. 

“Our research finds that social issue-oriented ads that take on controversial issues do not generate more positive brand attitudes, even among those who support the issue,” says Milfeld, whose work focuses on brand communication. “For some people, these ads lead to more negative brand impressions.”

The researchers found that social issue ads often create discomfort when viewers watch them with other people. A notable instance in this year’s Super Bowl was Jeep’s ad featuring celebrity spokesperson Bruce Springsteen, whose personal politics were well known to some viewers.

Because many consumers already have preconceived opinions about social issues, companies often have better outcomes in changing attitudes and promoting their brands if they use storytelling to focus on issues with broad support.

“If the intent is to spark conversation, storytelling can be effective in reducing message resistance,” Milfeld says. “One of the reasons that the Toyota ad did well was because its message centered on [Paralympic swimmer] Jessica Long’s story. We have seen that storytelling tends to generate more positive consumer responses when brands move into social-oriented messages.”

Rather than use their air time to express opinions about social issues, more companies opted to focus on reinforcing their brand reputation and advertising actual products. State Farm reemphasized its long-time “good neighbor” promise. To promote its lemonade seltzer, Bud Light showed lemons falling from the sky. Frito-Lay marketed its new 3D Doritos with the help of a two-dimensional Matthew McConaughey — a fitting image during a game in which many stadium seats were filled with cardboard cutouts of fans due to COVID-19 social distancing protocols.

“Ads that contain a product truth continue to resonate,” Milfeld says. “Marketers should not forget about what they are selling.”

The researchers found this to be true even when viewers did not necessarily enjoy the product presentation. Oatly generated high brand recall for its oat milk, although its low-budget ad and “Wow, no cow,” jingle were widely panned.

Another trend the researchers noticed this year was that seven commercials were created in-house by the advertisers rather than being outsourced to advertising agencies. 

“It’s an interesting development, since Super Bowl ads require a higher degree of production quality and talent management,” Milfeld says. “If this trend continues, it will have implications for the agency-client landscape.”


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,