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Who Won (and Lost) Cause Marketing at Super Bowl LIV

Emily Kane Miller headshotWords by Emily Kane Miller
Consumer Trends
Cause Marketing

Every year, there are two extraordinary competitions on Super Bowl Sunday: the one between great athletes on the field, and a second between the world’s greatest marketers who dream up the most creative concepts (as in Emily Hampshire of Schitt’s Creek pairing with Charlie Day for that oft-discussed Super Bowl ad for P&G’s Tide ad, shown above) to compete for your attention in the most expensive seconds that money can buy.

An increasing number of Super Bowl ads have integrated some form of cause marketing into their narrative. Yet, while the advertising teams behind these concepts compete at the highest level to produce the most powerful ads possible, the social impact they claim to promote is often lacking.

Scoring Super Bowl LIV cause marketing ads

So how did this year’s Super Bowl ads move the needle on social impact? We classified a number of the brands that engaged in “cause marketing” using the following rubric:

Fit: Does the cause make sense for the brand? Score: X points out of 3 (/3)

Partnership: Does the brand have a substantiated partnership connected to this effort? Score: X/1

Activation: Does the ad inform and activate viewers? Do people care more about the cause because of this ad? Score: X/3

Long-term: Is this a long-term relationship? Will this relationship benefit this work? Score: X/3

The head scratcher

WeatherTech  | Lucky Dog

  • The ad: Spotlights the efforts of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in saving Scout, the WeatherTech dog.
  • The activation: Donate to University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine by visiting weathertech.com/donate.
  • Social good effort: Although the ad’s CTA is to raise money for the University of Wisconsin’s Veterinary program, the donation page is primarily dedicated to WeatherTech products.
  • Score:
    • Fit - 1/3
    • Partnership - 1/1
    • Activation - 2/3
    • Long term benefit - 2/3
    • TOTAL - 6/10
  • Our take: The story of University of Wisconsin saving Scout’s life is heartwarming, but the connection to WeatherTech left us scratching our heads. You have to really dig to learn that Scout belongs to WeatherTech’s Founder + CEO, and that after his positive experience with the Veterinary program, he wanted to find a way to support them. Getting featured in a Super Bowl ad seems like a pretty good thank you. Still, WeatherTech could have done a more thorough job of establishing the link, and explaining its relationship and financial commitment to the University of Wisconsin, especially on the related website.  

A Missed Cause Marketing Opportunity

Olay | #MAKESPACEFORWOMEN

  • The ad: Features Katie Couric, astronaut Nicole Stott, Taraji P. Henson (star of Hidden Figures), Busy Phillips, and Lilly Singh in a spot inspired by 2018’s historic all-female spacewalk.
  • The activation: For every tweet with the hashtag, #MakeSpaceForWomen, Olay will donate $1 to Girls Who Code.
  • Social good effort: According to the campaign site, P&G (Olay’s parent company) is a Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program partner. However, the ad fails to communicate this or meaningfully connect to the effort.
  • Score:
    • Fit - 1/3
    • Partnership - 1/1
    • Activation - 1/3
    • Long term - 1/3
    • TOTAL - 4/10
  • Our take: We are all in for gender equity. That notwithstanding, this ad confused us. The connection between skincare, celebrities, space travel and coding feels awkward. It was only after additional research that we learned Olay’s parent company, P&G, has a standing partnership with Girls Who Code (which is a great organization!). In this case, Olay missed the opportunity to showcase their actual partnership with Girls Who Code and why it matters to them.

Love the program (not the ad) 

Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold | 6 for 6-Pack 

  • The ad: Replete with farmers, flash mobs, and football fans – this spot promotes Michelob’s new(ish) organic beer and highlights their pledge to transform America’s farmland to organic, inviting every beer drinker to help. 
  • The activation: Buy a 6-pack and help transition 6 square feet of farmland to organic.
  • Social good effort: Last summer, Michelob launched its impressive Contract for Change program, which supports farmers transitioning their barley crops from conventional to organic. The 6 for 6-pack program directly engages consumers in Contract for Change’s mission.
  • Score:
    • Fit - 3/3
    • Partnership - 1/1
    • Activation - 1/3
    • Long term benefit - 2/3
    • TOTAL - 7/10
  • Our take: Although we didn’t love the actual ad (we’re not marketing people, but…), Michelob Ultra’s Contract for Change program promoting organic farming is important, especially for a major beer manufacturer. It makes a ton of sense for their brand, and a ton of sense for the future of ag. We did note that the website’s fine print states that the cost of transitioning 6 square feet of land is $0.02, and their campaign commitment cap is $1 million. Over the course of the 2-year campaign, Michelob would have to sell 50 million 6-packs of their organic beer to donate the full $1 million. We are hoping their committed to the gift regardless of sales. In the end, while the ad and the activation didn’t do Contract for Change justice, we’re still excited about this cause marketing campaign.

Almost, but not quite: PSA without a CTA x2  

Microsoft | Be The One / Katie Sowers

  • The ad: Showcases San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers and her historic path to becoming the first woman and first openly gay person to coach in the Super Bowl.
  • The activation: None.
  • Social good effort: The ad brings attention to the importance of trailblazers like Coach Sowers in breaking boundaries with the message, “All it takes is one.”
  • Score:
    • Fit - 1/3
    • Partnership - 0/1
    • Activation - 0/3
    • Long term - 1/3
    • TOTAL - 2/10
  • Our take: This was an awesome ad. It made us proud and excited for the 49ers, Katie Sowers, and football. However, we wish they had pushed the idea from inspiration to activation by partnering with an organization that builds skills and confidence in girls. (We’re inspired by Play Like a Girl, Girls in the Game, and Girls on the Run just to name a few.) While we loved the idea, next year, we hope Microsoft takes the ball further down the field.

NFL | Inspire Change

  • The ad: Promotes the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative through a PSA about the tragic police shooting death of Corey Jones, cousin of retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Corey Jones was waiting for a tow truck when he was shot.
  • The activation: None.
  • Social good effort: The ad highlights the Players Coalition, an organization Boldin and others founded to combat social injustice and racial inequality in America. Inspire Change is the NFL’s platform to showcase how players, owners and the League are working in community on these pressing matters.
  • Score:
    • Fit - 3/3
    • Partnership - 1/1
    • Activation - 1/3
    • Long term - 1/3
    • TOTAL - 6/10
  • Our take: The ad is an authentic and powerful tribute, which uses the most visible platform in America to get people talking about these issues. For this, we really commend the league. Many have rightly pointed out that on an issue as complex and pressing as racial justice, the ad avoids pushing the viewer to engage and be part of the change, which we think would have made this piece even stronger.

Not enough there there

Audi, GM and Porsche all introduced their new electric vehicles with spots in the Super Bowl. The ads, ranging from Audi’s Frozen theme, to GM’s electric Hummer promotion featuring Lebron James, to Porsche’s “heist”, send the message that driving sustainably is still “cool” and that switching to electric doesn’t mean sacrificing performance.

Our take: If these companies wanted to push the conversation around sustainability, they could have done so in a much more powerful way (perhaps by partnering with any of the thousands of organizations standing on the front lines of climate change...). These ads flirted with cause, but in the end were just … ads.

Image credit: Tide

Emily Kane Miller headshotEmily Kane Miller

Emily Kane Miller is the Founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, a philanthropic services firm. She also serves as a Scholar in Residence at The Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of California's Marshall School of Business.

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