2018 was a turbulent year. Emotions ran high as Americans stared down the barrel of political upheaval, environmental unease and economic instability. With the country feeling frayed, brands kept things relatively light, offering a brief reprieve with their Super Bowl LIII ads. “For advertisers it’s somewhat of a play-it-safe year,” said Charles R. Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova University School of Business. “We’re not hearing about anything crossing over in politics.” Instead, brands focused on what brings people together with stories of empowerment, human connection, and the evolving role of technology – gently poking fun in the process.

Poking fun at tech

In contrast to prior years, the overarching sentiment of this year’s Super Bowl ads was not political. Instead, the lion’s share of ads passed commentary on tech’s looming presence. After a year of both lightning-fast, unfettered technological advancement and commensurate backlash to tech’s influence and reach, brands across all categories have started to question and even ridicule technology’s trajectory.

With digital assistants on the rise, brands like TurboTax, Pringles and Michelob Ultra gently mocked their growing influence with vignettes highlighting the limitations of devices’ emotional intelligence. TurboTax introduced Robo Child, a 21st century Pinocchio caricature who, after being told he is “never going to be emotionally complex enough,” responds by saying “I am sad” and then bursting into laughter. Pringles’ sad smart device laments that she’ll “never know the joy of tasting [Pringles], for I have no hands to stack with, no mouth to taste with, no soul to feel with.”

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Amazon Alexa, Mercedes and Olay poked fun at our dependence on voice and facial recognition; Amazon imagined humorous failed applications like Alexa for dogs, while Olay joked that their cream is so good that facial recognition software won’t be able to identify you. The subtle mix of plausibility and absurdity brought into relief the delicate balance between human and digital touch.

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Liz Taylor, chief creative officer of FCB, said, “That’s kind of the cultural moment that people are tapping into — A. I. and robots and tech.”

Human experience

Other brands, however, took a more hopeful approach to tech, making the case that deliberate and purposeful applications can create real potential for meaningful human connection. Google highlighted the power of Google Translate to bridge language gaps and bring people together, revealing that the top three most-searched translations are “how are you,” “thank you,” and “I love you.” Microsoft showed how the Adaptive Controller for Xbox One, which was designed for players with disabilities, is making gaming more inclusive.

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Female first

While on the whole, Super Bowl LIII’s ads weren’t nearly as political as in recent years, a few brands took a strong stance on female empowerment. Thanks to the widespread momentum of movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, 2018 saw heightened attention to the female experience in a wide range of sectors. Now, it seems brands are finally recognizing the danger in failing to address and portray women as equals.

Bumble enlisted Serena Williams for its “The Ball is in Her Court” campaign. The brand, which has been outspoken in advocating for gender equality, hopes to inspire women to make the first move both on and off the social networking platform. In the ad, Williams breaks down outdated stereotypes of how women are expected act. “The world tells you to wait,” Williams says in the spot, “that waiting is polite and good things will just come. But…if I waited for change to happen, I never would have made a difference.” The ending sentiment is what really marks the shift in perspective over the past year: “Don’t wait to be given power,” Williams concludes, “because here’s what they won’t tell you: we already have it.”

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Toyota’s ad also doubled down on female empowerment. The ad features 22-year-old football player Toni Harris, the first female player to be offered a full football scholarship. “Toni is shattering perceptions of a football player,” said Ed Laukes, group vice president of Toyota Marketing in North America. “We’re excited to highlight Toni’s inspirational story during the Big Game and remind viewers that assumptions should always be challenged.”

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“The female empowerment theme this year is very real,” Professor Taylor of the Villanova University School of Business said. “That doesn’t mean it’s overwhelming — there’s still more ads with male lead characters and still more male celebrities — but I think it’s narrowed a little bit.”

Not only was there a spotlight on female empowerment, but passive enforcement of gender equality has also improved. “I haven’t seen any ads that objectify women, which is awesome,” said Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer of the agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners. “Overall, the gap is narrowing,” she said. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

A new legacy

Legacy brands are changing things up, looking ahead to the future rather than calling on their history. While in the past well-established brands have leaned into their heritage, this year big brands projected the idea that the way things have always been done is no longer good enough, tapping into consumer unease around the environment and health.

Budweiser, the staunch traditionalist of Super Bowl advertising, took a new tack with their announcement that all Budweiser beer is now brewed with 100% wind-powered renewable energy, “for a better tomorrow.” Likewise turning their attention to environmental impact, Audi revealed their plan for one third of all new vehicles manufactured to be electric by 2025. Michelob, meanwhile, unveiled a new organic beer and Bud Light drove home that they don’t use corn syrup in their brewing process. Stella Artois, while not actually announcing a change in its product line or production, captured the sentiment with their proclamation “changing can do a little good.”

“It’s finally the Super Bowl where the message is more about the future than anything else,” said Jon Haber, cofounder of Giant Spoon.

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