Super Bowl Commercials Use Autos to Describe U.S. Identity in Divided Times

Super Bowl commercials have a way of incorporating our American fascination with cars as a way to reinforce our identities. Today’s social media Super Bowl tie-in’s speak to the importance of automobiles as central to the American economy and ideological landscape. They’re also a way for us to celebrate a particular if mythological Golden Age of American’s past while looking to the degree to which we’ve oriented ourselves as a nation around progressive values, especially those that promote climate change action.

Super Bowl

The automobile and the American identity

Back in the 20th century, many groups became affiliated with a particular kind of vehicle, like vagabond hippies and the VW bus. Surfers and 1940s woodies. WASP middle-class moms and the station wagon. Rugged individualists and off-road trucks. Yuppies and BMWs. A common U.S. cultural value has been to connect advertising and the automobile with the quintessential icons of freedom and mobility. The automobile became part of our daily existences, an extension of our public selves as symbols of who were as individuals and as part of a common culture. Automotive designs in the 20th century mostly reflected what it meant to have an American personality and style.

With the ubiquity of design in today’s U.S. automobiles, the car as identity has shifted a bit. Today, the car is more of a way to align oneself with value systems, such as those that work toward reducing carbon emissions into the environment. It’s not really like it was in 1950 as way to be “cool.” Think iconic gull wings on a Tesla Model X rather than James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder.

Super Bowl commercials reflect U.S. social divisions

In 1967, the first Super Bowl consisted of college bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling State University, instead of featuring popular singers and musicians as in more recent Super Bowls. Today, the Super Bowl is a very special occasion. Super Bowl LI 2017 in Houston features high profile television commercials to grab viewers’ attention. Explicit political and direct issue-related advertising are usually not aired during the Super Bowl, as the NFL has rules for equal issue broadcast time and adherence to NFL policies. As with any media message, though, some commercials will nonetheless attract controversy due to the nature of their content and the elements of their compositional design.

Corporations spend an enormous amount on Super Bowl commercials with the hope that their product or service will be the one most talked about on social media and, as a result, by people across the U.S. (The Super Bowl commercials are generally limited to the American television broadcast of the game, although they may be available abroad on YouTube.) Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, noted the slower pace of ad buys as the Super Bowl LI approached. “This year the polarization of the country is so apparent,” Calkins noted, “and that will clearly have an impact on how companies think about and approach the Super Bowl.”

On January 20, 2017, the Pew Charitable Trust released six important findings that emerged from their U.S. political surveys since the election.

  1. Trump remains historically unpopular.
  2. Most Americans want Trump to be “more cautious.”
  3. The GOP’s image has improved.
  4. Views of Russia and Putin have shifted along partisan lines.
  5. Democrats glumly approach a new era.
  6. Obama leaves office on a high note.

These findings are instructive when we think about how the Super Bowl LI — a quintessential celebration of all that is American — depicts itself as a nation. “To not think that there’s a Trump effect here would be crazy. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” said Michael Bernacchi, professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Despite the buoyant post-election stock market, marketing experts indicate that brands both within and outside the auto category are acting cautiously with their Super Bowl commercial decisions. Many were hesitant to spend potentially more than $5 million, which doesn’t include the pricey associated production and digital promotional costs, for a 30-second commercial. They were uncertain about what lies ahead for the nation’s economy and couldn’t risk alienating their clientele.

Super Bowl commercials, automobiles, and a cleantech future

Specifically, Super Bowl automotive commercials that appeal to audiences can tell us a lot about what values inspire or alarm us. The 2017 Super Bowl automaker commercials scheduled to be aired by Lexus, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and Kia, among others, are sure to make us laugh, celebrate technological advancements, and long for a better tomorrow. They’ll also likely describe our collective U.S. identities about climate change and cleantech during a time when, moving into the cabinet hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees, Democrats are intent on pressing his choices for Environmental Protection Agency administrator, secretary of state, and energy secretary for past statements to reveal their climate-denying views.

Super Bowl commercials have the capacity to remind viewers of the tenuous state of our climate and planet. Let’s see if they take a moral high ground.

Stay tuned.

Photo credit: AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker via / CC BY



Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+