Super Bowl Ads on Diversity, Public Service Prove Polarizing

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If you didn’t get your fill of social advocacy from brands during last year’s Super Bowl, you certainly did last night.

Coca-Cola’s ad promoted unity, while showing people from different ethnicities and walks of life drinking a Coke. T-Mobile’s diversity-themed-spot offered an aerial view of babies from different backgrounds. Budweiser used the stage to tout its clean water effort. Toyota’s spots featured religious diversity and athletes who overcame challenges in the Paralympics.

Companies know they can score points with some consumers for taking up social causes in their marketing, from the environment to gender equality. In this year’s Super bowl many brands opted for feel-good themes like diversity, public service and philanthropy that they hoped would be less controversial.

That approach didn’t always work out, as some of the social-focused ads were polarizing. Many Twitter users slammed Dodge Ram Trucks for using audio of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech in an ad for its Ram pickup truck that promoted public service, seeing it as a sales stunt. Social-media conversation about the brand was 88.2% negative, according to Brandwatch, a firm that tracks brand mentions on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.

“Exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech about servant leadership to sell trucks is a new low,” tweeted Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat.

“It is 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave such a tremendous speech about the value of service,” Dodge-parent Fiat Chrysler said in a statement. “Ram was honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually.”

Other brands scored. Coca-Cola’s social-media mentions were 93% positive, while Budweiser’s were 77.5% positive, according to Brandwatch.

Still, some ad experts warn viewers could become fatigued with ads trumpeting social messages over the long term.

Brands that steer away from the most controversial topics risk being “washover generic,” said Courtney Buechert, chief executive of ad agency Eleven. Consumers “wont remember who the company was. They’d probably rather you have that honest exchange – ‘buy my stuff.’”

Commercials with similar themes and tones, like the Coke and T-Mobile ads, risk blending together for viewers, said

Jonah Disend,

chairman of branding firm Redscout.

“It is hard not to feel good about ads intended to make you feel good, but once the luster of saving the world wears off will people even remember who sponsored those 30-second anthems?” Mr. Disend said.

In the Coke ad, as different types of people from around the world are shown, the narrators say, “We all have different looks and loves, likes and dislikes, too. But there’s a Coke for me, and us, and there’s a Coke for you.”

“We have always focused on the power of Coca-Cola to bring people together,” a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said. “This year’s simple and positive concept was intentional to allow the optimistic message of unity to resonate with the millions who view it.”

In the T-Mobile ad, the narrator says to the scrolling lineup of babies, “You’ll love who you want. You’ll demand fair and equal pay. You will not allow where you come from to dictate where you’re going.”

Sentiment about the ad was 52.4% positive and 47.6% negative, according to data from Brandwatch.

“For us, this is a passion project that reflects T-Mobile’s long-held values,” said Nick Drake, T-Mobile’s executive vice president of marketing and experience, in a statement.

TiVo’s list of the top-ten most engaging ads from Sunday’s game didn’t include any of the social advocacy spots. The list was topped by a spot for Doritos and Mountain Dew that featured a lip-sync battle between actors

Morgan Freeman

and Peter Dinklage. TiVo’s data is based on its measurement product that samples viewing in over 92,000 households.

Ad executives say brands are fixated on social advocacy because they are trying to reach millennials, who they believe will only buy from companies doing social good.

“I do think that everyone got the same memo, that millennials want to feel good about companies they support, so [brands are saying] let’s help them feel good about us,” said Mr. Disend. “We don’t really know what they care about. We just think they care, but we’re not actually going deep and saying what’s meaningful and what’s persuasive.”

The companies that aired social-oriented ads say they aren’t concerned about “cause fatigue” and are proud they used pricey Super Bowl airtime to highlight important messages.

“I don’t think it’s possible for too many brands to take a stance on issues that matter,” said T-Mobile’s Mr. Drake.

Write to Alexandra Bruell at alexandra.bruell@wsj.com

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