Super Bowl LV advertisers tackle diversity, inclusion with mixed results
Super Bowl commercials will be viewed with an especially critical eye on Sunday as a tangible indication of how the ad world has responded to the calls to fix systemic racism that has long plagued the advertising industry.
Amid the re-invigorated social justice movement last spring, many brands issued statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and promised to do better.
The Super Bowl represents a very clear opportunity to put those words into actions on the biggest stage of the year.
So Ad Age asked nearly every advertiser with plans to air in-game commercials about how they prioritized diversity and inclusion in the creation and production of their ads. While some brands had very clear action steps and outlined specific ways they implemented these practices in the conceptual and production phases of its ads, many provided cookie-cutter mission statements that simply say they support the cause.
According to the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, an arm of the Association of National Advertisers, thus far this year’s Super Bowl ads are nearly identical in terms of representation to 2020’s, with significantly lower representation of Hispanic, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities.
While the ads so far are largely inclusive in casting, they are shaping up to be perceived as less culturally relevant across the board than last year, and significantly less authentic than non-Super Bowl ads, according to AIMM’s Cultural Insight Impact Measure.
In the right direction
There have been some clear efforts in the way of casting. Brands like Michelob Ultra, Amazon, Logitech, Squarespace, Klarna and DoorDash casted Black actors and actresses in lead roles. Other companies like Indeed and Robinhood tapped a mix of genders and ethnicities for ensemble casts; WeatherTech featured real employees from various racial backgrounds; Mercari’s ad included a mixed-race couple; while brands like Scotts Miracle-Gro and Uber Eats made sure to include celebrities of color alongside non-Black or Hispanic actors. Toyota is the only brand so far this year to feature a person with a disability.
GLAAD also calls out Michelob Ultra, Logitech, M&M's and ViacomCBS' promo for Paramount+ for strong representation of the LGBTQ+ community.
Inclusivity was a key part of DoorDash’s brief to its agency The Martin Agency for the Super Bowl. The result is a partnership with the Sesame Street Workshop for a spot that features the iconic muppets alongside “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs.
“For us, this is something that is both deeply important and deeply personal for me as a Black man in America,” says Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, VP, marketing, DoorDash. “Our founders are immigrants and it’s always a fabric of our work.”
DoorDash utilized a remake of the classic song from Sesame Street, “The Neighborhood,” to showcase the other types of items beyond just restaurant deliveries DoorDash can be used for, like milk, cookies, shampoo, birdseed and paper towels.
Amoo-Gottfried says the partnership with Sesame Street was the perfect fit because the series has embodied diversity and inclusion since its inception in 1969.
DoorDash looked to reflect diversity not only in the casting, but in the types of items they featured, and is also using the spot to help drive donations to Sesame Workshop, which helps underprivileged children, he says.
But there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
"We probably did a better job in front of the camera than behind the camera honestly,” Amoo-Gottfried says. French director Michel Gondry directed the ad. “This time it was a Frenchman, and I think we made the right choice for the story we wanted to tell,” he adds.
Amazon’s commercial is one of the rare spots to feature a predominantly Black cast. In the commercial, Alexa embodies Michael B. Jordan, much to the delight of a Black female executive (not so much her husband).
“We know that representation is critical and were thrilled to work with Michael B. Jordan this year on not only an inclusive Alexa Super Bowl ad, but also an inclusive production with a cast, crew and creative team of diverse and exceptional talent,” according to an Amazon spokesperson. “Diversity and inclusion is not a project that can ever be marked complete, it’s a mindset that must show up in everything we do—from the people we hire and promote to the products we build for customers, to the sellers, small business owners and communities we serve.”
The ad, however, has already received some backlash on social media, with critics calling it a double standard that a female can overtly fawn over Jordan, but if an attractive woman was cast in Jordan’s role and being looked at the same way, it would be deemed sexist.
More than just checking off a box in casting, an important measure for this year’s ads will be the authentic and accurate representation of diverse groups.
Huggies, which will be the first diaper brand to air a Super Bowl commercial, will feature real babies that are born this Super Bowl Sunday, thanks to some user-generated content. The company is highlighting real families in the commercial to keep the portrayals as accurate as possible, says Rebecca Dunphey, president, personal care, Kimberly-Clark North America, Huggies' parent company. Huggies intentionally sought out an inclusive mix of family units that reflect a range of “racially diverse and differently abled families,” she says.
“We recognize diversity is critical in every step of the process, including planning, production, casting, media buying and more. In fact, our team, including those of our agency partners, includes a mix of representation across gender, sexuality and ethnicities. That inclusive dynamic helped us ensure conversations about the work were balanced and had a multitude of perspectives considered, which we think comes through in the final product.”
Similarly, Indeed, the online job site, not only made sure the real job seekers it featured in its first Super Bowl commercial were diverse, but that it was also strategic in how it represented and defined those job seekers. A Black woman is shown getting a job as a software engineer, for example, and a young Black man is called “experienced.”
“Inherent in our mission is we help all people get jobs. I would say it just has always been part of who we are. And when we create our advertising we all make sure to capture the all and reflect the true labor force and those looking for jobs,” Jennifer Warren, VP, global brand and communications, Indeed, said during Ad Age Remotely this week.
Indeed works with an internal diversity, inclusion and belonging team that are at the table during every part of the process—conception, casting and looking at final ads—to make sure they reflect an inclusive environment, Warren said.
Behind the camera
In order to ensure authenticity on the screen, DE&I advocates say that those making the ads need to also be representative. Several brands noted how they have changed their production process this year as a result.
M&M’s worked closely with BBDO’s new chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Jason Rosario, on the creative development of the campaign in an effort to make sure not only the script, but each character, was properly represented.
The spot consists of several vignettes that show people using M&M’s to apologize for transgressions, like kicking the plane seat in front of you, mansplaining and calling someone a “Karen.”
Rosario was part of the entire process, from helping to shape the concept, to casting and evaluating each character in the script to make sure they were representative.
“We want diversity to be natural,” Rosario says.
As they were crafting a joke, for example, it was imperative for the joke not to be contingent on relying on a diverse trope. The joke has to work without that trope, he says.
Free The Work, a talent discovery platform for underrepresented creators, was considered in the process. In terms of gender representation, 52% of the production team working on the campaign was made up of women within the creative industry, the company said.
Venables Bell & Partners, which worked on Chipotle’s commercial, said the agency team behind the effort was 59% female and 29% people of color. And overall, 71% identify as female, people of color or LGBTQIA+.
Robinhood, the trading app at the center of the GameStop stock controversy, noted its ad was created by a team of women, including chief marketing officer Christina Smedley, creative director Ximena Keirouz, MediaMonk’s head of integrated film Debora den Iseger and creative director Leanne Chabalko, and film director Nina Meredith. This comes as the trading app sees an uptick in the number of women who are on the platform.
Smedley says she speaks to Robinhood’s users weekly, and the spot pulls real stories from those conversations. “There is a whole new generation becoming engaged with trading for the first time,” she says, and that is reflected in the ad. The commercial shows people of various races, genders and ethnicities, and also in ways not typically seen in ads, like a man rocking a baby to sleep in the middle of the night and a Black female business owner.
Last year’s TurboTax Super Bowl ad “All People Are Tax People” received high marks for featuring a diverse cast, including two deaf women signing their new jingle.
This year, the tax prep company shows how its live tax experts can come to people on their own terms and highlights nuances of tax prep, like if you are 100-years old in New Mexico you don’t have to pay state taxes.
“We can always do better and are actively working to make progress everyday through our company wide DE&I initiatives,” a TurboTax spokesperson said.
TurboTax says its agency creative team is 48% BIPOC and 72% female. It’s three-person directorial team also included Latinx and female representation.
E-Trade says it tested its Super Bowl ad through the ANA’s partnership with the Advertising Benchmark Index to measure appropriateness of gender representation. It also tested the spot with members of its own Employee Resource Groups across the company, which a company spokesperson said received positive reviews about its promotion of diversity and inclusion and featuring a positive female role model. E-Trade also notes its agency of record MullenLowe U.S. is part of platforms promoting underrepresented production talent like Free the Work, Bid Black and Change the Lens, and is “constantly updating their production resources to increase our partnerships with Black-owned businesses—from directors to makeup artists to craft services and more.”
Toyota is one of the few brands to lean in to a message of inclusivity. The automaker tells the story of Paralympian Jessica Long, a double-leg amputee who was adopted by an American couple from a Russian orphanage and went on to achieve athletic greatness in the swimming pool. While this ad was originally intended to air in the Summer Olympics, which were delayed a year due to the pandemic, Fabio Costa, exec creative director at the brand’s agency Saatchi & Saatchi says the message was perfect for the Super Bowl. “We need that message right now, especially as a society, especially here in America.” This marks the third time a Paralympian has been featured in a Toyota Super Bowl spot.
The Super Bowl spot also had a diverse crew behind it. Costa is from Brazil, and the director Tarsem Singh is from India. The diversity “creates this connection with all different cultures, all different ethnicities, all different languages—we all win in the end,” Costa says.
It comes naturally
Several brands stressed how they didn’t want their efforts around D&I to be overt or heavy-handed.
“I want to treat it in a very natural way. What you are not going to see is forced situations,” or creating “fake situations just to make sure that we are protected here or there,” says Anheuser-Busch InBev U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Marcel Marcondes.
Anheuser-Busch didn’t do anything differently in how it cast its Super Bowl ads this year, saying it always tries to present a reflection of the diverse consumer base it serves.
“I don’t want our brands to be bullshitting about, ‘I believe in this, I believe in that.’” To that end, Marcondes says the brewer has focused more on concrete actions. This includes establishing a scholarship program backed by the United Negro College Fund that benefits students pursuing STEM majors applicable to careers in brewing.
AB’s portfolio of ads does feature diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, including a Black male lead in the “Bud Light Legends” ad, which includes a cameo from Cedric the Entertainer. Serena Williams, Anthony David and Jimmy Butler appear in Michelob Ultra’s “Happy” spot, while Don Cheadle stars in the label’s second commercial promoting its organic seltzer.
For Klarna, the buy now, pay later firm, diversity isn’t a new lens through which the company operates, says David Sandstrom, chief marketing officer. As a “small Nordic company,” Sandstrom says it has been essential to Klarna’s operations for the company to seek talent from around the world. “In order to do what we do, we have to be diverse,” he says, adding that Klarna has employees from over 90 countries.
The company tapped Maya Rudolph to star in its first Super Bowl ad to show how people can purchase items and pay for them later with four no-interest payments.
“We don’t overthink it because it comes so naturally. I see a lot of brands and CMOs that try to force it into their creative, and what makes me proud is that it is at the heart of what we do,” he says.
As part of the Super Bowl campaign, Klarna will use social media to feature small, minority and Black-owned businesses within the Western town that’s the setting of the commercial.
Similarly, Fiverr, an online freelance platform, has a community of freelancers from 160 different countries. “Freelancers are coming from so many countries, and on our platform they are judged by their skills and nothing more, not their background or gender,” Gali Arnon, chief marketing officer, Fiverr, said during Ad Age’s In-Depth: Super Bowl event earlier this week.
“Diversity and inclusion considerations are something you can’t just do in an ad. They should be part of your DNA and part of your brand any day of the year,” she says.
Like its previous ad campaigns, Fiverr features a member of its community in its first Super Bowl commercial. Anyone watching the news this year will remember Four Seasons Total Landscaping, which famously became the site of a Donald Trump campaign press conference during the election. The women-owned small business is at the center of Fiverr’s spot.
For State Farm, which is entering the Super Bowl for the first time with a 30-second spot created with the Marketing Arm, incorporating inclusivity was not something the company was specifically looking to do because it was already part of the brand strategy.
“It’s not a trend for us—we don’t have to pretend to be someone we’re not,” says Rand Harbert, chief marketing officer of Bloomington, Illinois-based State Farm. “It’s just the way we think about things and the way we’ve behaved for a long time.”
Harbert points to State Farm’s diverse lineup. The insurer’s roster of spokespeople includes NBA’s Chris Paul and Kanas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes; and last year, State Farm brought on Kevin Miles, a Black actor, as spokesman Jake. The Super Bowl spot will include both Mahomes and Jake in creative that was filmed over the summer.
Harbert notes that if the brand does something that doesn’t reach the right cultural spot it is trying to connect with, he has a team in place that will call it out. “We have worked really hard to get to the place we’re at,” he says. Yet he recognizes that State Farm can still do better. The company is working on an effort now with agency Translation to authentically make the brand as culturally relevant as possible.
Plenty work to do
Despite these types of efforts, there were more than a handful of commercials where a person of color did not have at least a supporting role, and in some cases, did not appear at all. Pringles, Dr. Squatch, Tide, Chipotle, Skechers and Vroom had predominantly white, if not all-white, casts.
Vroom CMO Peter Scherr says the company was “particularly watchful this year to make sure we are not coming off as insensitive.” As it relates to airing a commercial that speaks to the social justice movement, Scherr says they didn’t see the Super Bowl “as a place to make a social statement.”
The online dealership originally shot the Super Bowl commercial as part of a campaign of four ad spots, which are currently airing, and feature more diverse casts. "We are intentional about hiring actors from underrepresented backgrounds, so these four ads collectively represent the diversity of our customers."
Pringles, in a statement, says its ad, “reflects our fan base, which includes people from all walks of life. Both men and women are featured in prominent roles, as well as individuals from a variety of racial backgrounds and generations.” While there does seem to be a mix of women in the ensemble, all three speaking roles go to white men with limited representation of people of color elsewhere in the spot.
“With a moment like Big Game that reaches a mass audience, the idea needs to appeal to a broad, diverse audience,” Pringles wrote.
Dr. Squatch, the direct-to-consumer men’s personal care brand, featured all white men in its commercial doing the manly things that men do, like open a pickle jar and have their daughter braid their hair. While Josh Friedman, the company’s chief marketing officer, says diversity is “definitely something we’re very cognizant of,” he also admits as a smaller company “we probably have a less built-out official version of this in some way.”
“But it’s something as a small team we’re always thinking about, both during the Super Bowl and more broadly,” he adds.
Chipotle met with a “diverse cast of candidates for various roles,” says Stephanie Perdue, VP, brand marketing, Chipotle.
Yet the commercial, the first Big Game ad for the restaurant chain, stars a young white boy who tells his sister about how a burrito can revolutionize farming. The concept for the spot was inspired by the recipients of the 2020 Chipotle x National Young Farmers Coalition Seed Grant, of which nearly 80% were women and BIPOC, Perdue says.
While Tide has portrayed a more diverse cast in its recent Hygienic Clean advertising over the past year, its Super Bowl ad takes you through the day in the life of a sweatshirt of a young, white teenage boy. The sweatshirt is played by a CGI version of “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander.
“At Tide we’ve made an open and intentional commitment to highlight a wide diversity of American families in our advertising. We agree advertising affects our perceptions. We have a responsibility to ensure those perceptions are accurate and respectful. This year’s Super Bowl spot takes you through a day in the life of one teenager’s sweatshirt. In this spot, the hoodie is the star,” says Amy Krehbiel, brand VP of North American laundry for Procter & Gamble.
Frito-Lay has two spots in the game—one for Doritos and the other for Cheetos. Matthew McConaughey stars as #FlatMatthew in the Doritos ad promoting its new 3D Crunch flavor. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis take on Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” alongside the rapper.
“We aim to represent the diverse makeup of the communities in which we live and operate in our creative and that was no different with our Super Bowl spots. We also make sure the creative is authentic and reflects the brand and the context in which we are engaging consumers,” says Marissa Solis, senior VP, portfolio marketing, Frito-Lay.
Solis points to its PepsiCo-wide Racial Equality Journey—which committed more than $570 million to lift up Black and Hispanic communities and increase representation.
Hellmann’s, whose first Super Bowl ad stars Amy Schumer with a message about reducing food waste, says it has committed to “increasing the number of advertisements that include people from diverse groups, both on screen and behind the camera. We will help tackle the prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising and promote a more inclusive representation of people.”
Certainly, inclusivity is a long journey, but the Super Bowl is an important place to gauge how brands are thinking about representation in advertising in 2021. And as companies think about how they are presenting their brands in their advertising, an even bigger effort needs to take place internally.
“We all have a long way to go. The reality is, this feels like an existential pursuit and one that is urgent,” says DoorDash’s Amoo-Gottfried. “There are things that are easy to do—casting is easy. Being more thoughtful about who is behind the camera is harder, but still easy. Thinking about if your business reflects where America needs to go and is truly inclusive of the country is much harder.”
Contributing: Jessica Wohl, Jack Neff, E.J. Schultz, Adrianne Pasquarelli