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How to create change one behavior at a time.

The 2019 Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads for Behavior Change

They are the world’s most pricey commercials, full of celebrities and eye candy. But which 2019 Super Bowl ads will actually change behavior?

Here’s our take on what will matter a week from now — and not just to one product’s sales, but to the broader focus of this blog: social change.

Cause marketing or cause-ish marketing?  

Advertising matters, not just for a product, but for the ad’s potential impact on social norms. It’s one thing for public health advocates to criticize corn syrup; it’s another for Bud Light to attack its competitors for using it. Advertisers rarely break new ground on public health, sustainability or social causes, but ads can help lock down an emerging norm.

In this sense, Sunday was a disappointment. No one took the kind of risk we saw with the recent Gillette #MeToo ad or that we saw in last year’s Super Bowl ads. Here’s what was sold as courageous and laudable for 2019:


All of this is good stuff, of course, but none of it broke new ground thematically or creatively. If we were to grade them for inspiration, they’d fall in the C range.

The best cause marketing spot of the night: Verizon’s tributes to first responders — “The Coach That Wouldn’t Be Here” and “The Team That Wouldn’t Be Here.” While explicitly thanking first responders — with victims thanking the people who saved their lives — the 60-second spots may also inspire young people to join the ranks of firefighters, medics and others who work or volunteer as first responders. To the degree that that happens, the ad may actually save lives.

The need for volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians is a real one. As boomers age out, we have been working with the National Volunteer Fire Council to encourage millennials to volunteer. They can use the platform MakeMeAFirefighter.org to find ways to help their local fire and rescue departments. Maybe Verizon’s next move could be giving this effort a little exposure. That would make an impact.  

The worst cause marketing spot of the night: It’s a tie between two NFL spots — a frustratingly vague call for social justice and a pitch for empowering girls through Girls Inc. with a creative approach that felt like it was doing just the opposite. Take a look at each and tell us which you think was a bigger lost opportunity.

Cause marketing trend of the night: Justifying your product as good for the world. Google did this straightforwardly, showing the value of Google Translate and using military codes to find jobs for veterans. Budweiser made a big deal of using wind power, presumably at some of its breweries. Kia basically dressed up the claim any company can make — we provide jobs — with an especially condescending ad about “unknowns” in Georgia. 

 Ads that stood out

Most of the Big Game ads, like most ads in general, were about picking a product for a recognized need. In our world of behavior change marketing, the challenge is tougher: We are working to change people’s behavior, not just their brand choice.

But a few ads for commercial products stood out for what they can tell us about using behavioral determinants for good causes.

Best pitch to powerful determinant: The Mercedes Benz “Say the Word” spot made an entertaining link to the power of control as a reason to purchase a car from their A-Class. We can do the same in our world of social marketing: The more we give our target audience the feeling of control, the more likely they are to do any behavior (not just buy pricey automobiles). 

Best promotion of an added benefit: Too often, we as do-gooders focus on telling people about existing benefits they don’t value (eat veggies, we tell kids, they are good for you) rather than adding NEW benefits and promoting those. Hyundai added a new feature they call Shopper Assurance and then did an entertaining spot with Jason Bateman to promote it, albeit with a unnecessary (and not really funny) disparagement of vegan food.

Best play to multiple demographics: Social norms and social identity are powerful determinants of behavior, but to use them properly you have to send the right signals that you (the advertiser) and the target audience share a similar outlook. Two brands did this brilliantly Sunday: Expensify and Doritos.


Ads most out of step with public health: We both loved and hated the Pepsi “More than Okay” ad — funny in a sense (love Steve Carell), but so out of step with where most Americans are. Americans are drinking less and less soda all the time. The real loser in Coke vs. Pepsi is both drinks, which can lead to diabetes and obesity. Need a better choice? Check out our Better Beverage Finder. Lots of better stuff out there.

Ad that reminds me how dumb I am: I know beer is not good for me in the sense that water is, but I’ve been trying to move to Michelob Ultra lately, though I hate the taste. I was unconsciously buying into the brand’s positioning as better for athletes. Then I saw the robot ad Sunday. I felt a bit like I’m actually the butt of the joke (which, given I really don’t like the product, maybe I am). I fear many ads trying to discourage bad behaviors using humor do this as well: Unintentionally, we make our target audience the butt of the spot’s joke. Not a way to win converts.

 Peter Mitchell is the chief executive officer of Marketing for Change.

Want a closer look at the behavioral determinants we used to rank these ads? Check out this resource. 

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