Oh No They Didn’t! Super Bowl Ads Try To Profit From Controversy

January 30, 2013  |  
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A still from Kate Upton’s Super Bowl ad for Carl’s Jr.

The Super Bowl is more than a football game. During commercial breaks and on YouTube, companies are playing a Super Bowl of their own, competing to capture the world’s attention without embarrassing themselves. Any Real Housewives Of Atlanta fan can tell you how difficult that game is to master.

First possession of 2013 goes to Volkswagen. If you haven’t seen their ad featuring a proud Minnesotan talking like he works weekend shifts at the Jerk Pit, you clearly don’t work in a cubicle. Catch up, so you can engage in one of America’s favorite pastimes, a round of “Is That Racist?”

Does it matter that 100 Jamaicans are okay with the ad? Would it make it better if White Jamaicans existed? Do they exist? (FYI, they’re 3.2 percent of the country’s population. Yes, I Google’d and YouTube’d it. I was intrigued.) None of this really means anything. Some people find the commercial offensive. They may or may not be Jamaican.

Volkswagen knows their happy little commercial has a little edge to it. Edgy enough to talk to 100 Jamaicans. And make a back up ad. But standing out this time of year sometimes requires taking a little more risk. Success is determined by a simple premise: If the controversy outshines the product, you lose.

When the controversy puts an ad at the top of the news hour across the country, and the world collectively says, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” Companies like Volkswagen win. Bonus points if a few people say, “I love this ad” or “That’s a nice car he was driving.”

Here are a few attempts from Super Bowls past where companies have pushed the envelope to varying degrees, with varying levels of success. Is it a touchdown, or did they fumble the advertising budget?

Groupon – “Save the Money Tibet” (2011)

Groupon thought it’d be funny to make a joke of the plight of a struggling country to sell discounts at ethnic restaurants. The CEO Andrew Mason later acknowledged, “As many of you have pointed out, if an ad requires an explanation, that means it didn’t work.”

Go Daddy – “Lola” (2010)

Go Daddy gives the entrepreneur archetype a makeover with effeminate gay stereotypes. This is pretty tame, given the domain name registrar’s track record. CBS still opted to ban the ad.

Chrysler – “It’s Halftime in America” (2012)

It’s always perilous to align your product with issues bigger than your industry, especially socio-economic ones. Chrysler went all in when it crafted this spot tackling Detroit’s economic struggles.  Conservatives claimed the ad was meant to support President Obama’s campaign for reelection. Which had to be the last thing the commercial’s narrator, Clint Eastwood, intended.

M&M – “Just My Shell” (2012)

If anything could qualify as family-friendly edge this is it. The candy company stepped up their talking candy shtick by insinuating that the brown M&M may be a little… indecent. Queue an LMFAO track to lighten the mood and brush any scandal under the rug.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s – “Kate Upton”  (2012)

Carl will never be able to explain what scantily clad models have to do with burgers. And they don’t have to. This commercial was banned from the airwaves but entranced their target demographic of college frat boys on video channels around the web.

Holiday Inn – “Bob Johnson” (1997)

Holiday Inn thought the best way to advertise the chain’s billion-dollar overhaul was to compare its makeover to gender reassignment surgery. While activists within the transgendered community were outraged, millions of Super Bowl viewers were just confused.

Pepsi – “Pepsi Max Super Bowl Ad” (2011)

Pepsi Max decided to test the waters of post-racial America. Apparently, it’s not a hate crime if you’re keeping cute little white girls away from your black man. YouTube commenters are still debating whether the ad is racist or sexist.

Teleflora “Adriana” (2012)

Using Adriana Lima to catch viewer’s attention is just lazy. It wasn’t the model’s scantily clad body, but her message of “give flowers, get sex” that had some feminists in a tizzy.

Pete Hoekstra Senate Campaign “Debbie Spend It Now” (2012)

This isn’t a case of chasing controversy as much an example of how having zero cultural sensitivity can land you in controversy. Tackling the hot button issue of sending money overseas is fine. But, a stereotypical Asian woman, complete with broken English, is not going attract positive attention.

C. Cleveland is a freelance writer and content strategist in New York City, perfecting living the fierce life at The Red Read. She is at your service on Twitter (@CleveInTheCity) and Facebook (/MyReadIsRed).


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