(CNN) — Advertisers spent a record $5.2 million on each 30-second ad during the 2019 Super Bowl — or around $175,000 per second. But are they getting their money’s worth? Part of the answer depends on whether the commercials resonate with consumers. The most memorable spots of the night are ones for brands like Budweiser and Bumble that do not just peddle products, but also sent powerful messages about issues like diversity and women’s empowerment, which are top of mind for many Americans.
Douglas Holt, author of “How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding,” says that the brands that achieve iconic status “address the collective anxieties and desires of a nation.” Right now, Americans are certainly feeling anxious. Last month, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that almost 70% of the country has negative feelings about the state of the nation.
And Americans now expect businesses to take stances on issues they’re worried about, according to a 2018 survey by the public relations firm Cone and Porter Novelli. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say they feel stronger emotional connections with companies that are driven by purpose, and 79% are more loyal to such brands.
A number of Super Bowl advertisers clearly get the message. One of the biggest winners on this score is Budweiser, with its ad featuring a Dalmatian being pulled by the company’s famous Clydesdale horses through a wheat field of wind turbines to the sound of Bob Dylan’s famous social activism song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The ad announces that the beer is “now brewed with wind power,” “for a better tomorrow.”
“The nod to America’s heartland and nostalgic symbolism of a carefree past seamlessly gives way to a panorama featuring the future,” my colleague Anne Hamby, assistant professor of marketing and international business at Hofstra University, tells me. “I think this ad speaks elegantly to a divided nation, uniting elements of traditional and progressive values.”
Budweiser isn’t the only ad to send an important social message. Microsoft’s ad for its Xbox Adaptive Controller, which is used to play video games, features disabled children who are nevertheless able to succeed, sending an important message about the importance of inclusion. The ad proclaims, “When everybody plays, we all win.”
In a similar vein, Coca Cola’s ad featuring people of all different stripes enjoying the beverage proclaimed that “different is beautiful and together is beautiful, too.” At a time when Americans are bitterly politically polarized, a message championing acceptance of any kind is right on cultural cue.
Another spot with a message that is on the mark was Bumble’s ad featuring tennis star Serena Williams telling audiences to “make the first move in work, in love, in life and don’t wait to be given power.” This one will likely also ring true after a year in which women have become more assertive in many ways — from being elected to Congress in record numbers to speaking out against powerful men who have committed sexual assault as part of the #MeToo movement. So will Toyota’s ad for its Rav4 Hybrid featuring Toni Harris, the first woman who received a college scholarship to play on a defensive football team.
A number of companies also tap into anxiety about artificial intelligence and what robots have become capable of. An ad for Michelob ULTRA features a robot outpacing humans at skills like running, golf and cycling, but then left out and unable to join in when they went to a bar for a beer.
Similarly, Turbo Tax’s commercial shows a child robot who can’t eat and isn’t quite sure what love is, while a Pringles ad featured a voice assistant admitting, “I cannot taste Pringles — I can only order them.” Those ads, too, are well-positioned to speak to Americans who are uneasy about technology and what it can now do.
Of course, plenty of other brands miss the opportunity to connect with how Americans are feeling these days — like, for example, a seemingly meaningless spot for Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer featuring the makers as mermaids swimming with sharks that wasn’t particularly well done and didn’t seem to have anything important to say.
The ads that are likely to stay with us after the game are those that spoke to ideas and values beyond beer and potato chips. Here’s hoping we all remember the deeper allusions and messages about issues like climate change, empowerment, diversity and human connection.