NEW YORK — No GoDaddy. Not a bikini in sight. Service messages instead of crotch or fart jokes. As the Super Bowl turns 50 and faces middle age, will this be the year that advertisers stick to — gasp — good taste?
The Super Bowl remains advertising's biggest stage, especially as the broadcast TV audience fragments further thanks to Netflix and other on-demand TV services. Advertisers are spending as much as an estimated $5 million per 30 seconds to capture more than 114 million viewers expected to tune in. Debate over the game-day ads will start on social media before the game and carry over to work the next day, so it's crucial to stand out, without going so far as to offend.
But this year, amplifying a trend seen the past few years, advertisers seem to be playing it extra safe. And that might mean a repeat of last year's "Somber Bowl," when viewers were turned off by too-serious ads.
Distinguished British actress Helen Mirren will deliver a lecture about drunken driving and why it's a terrible idea. Many others are going with anthemic or public service-style messages: Colgate Palmolive will urge viewers to "Save Water," while outdoor brand Marmot urges people to spend more time outside and BMW showcases people who "Defy Labels."
Slapstick, crass humor and sex seem to be relegated to the sidelines. Internet address provider GoDaddy, which for 11 years walked the line of bad taste with ads that showed skimpily clad women and an extremely long close up of a kiss, is sitting it out, citing the need for more targeted advertising.
"People want to be entertained. They don't want somber messages or to be reminded of their problems," said veteran ad man Richard Kirshenbaum, CEO of ad agency NSG/SWAT. "The Super Bowl is America's great campfire. People want to gather around and have a great time."
Of course, light-hearted humor will be in abundance when the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos face off on CBS on Sunday. There are the requisite talking animals and celebrities galore. Doritos' ad shows dogs trying to check out at a grocery store, and Ryan Reynolds plays all of the residents in a town called "Ryanville" for Hyundai, for example.
And there are still several major advertisers, including Chrysler and Coca-Cola, whose super-secret ads could deliver big surprises.
Cinematic or serious ads can be Super bowl hits. Chrysler has garnered kudos for years for its spots about American engineering and its cars featuring stars like Eminem and Clint Eastwood. Attaching your brand to a social cause can be a way to engender goodwill.
But advertisers can't afford another crop of ads like last year. Those ads struck viewers as depressing, most notably a dark PSA from insurer Nationwide. It featured a child's death to highlight the risks of preventable household accidents. (Nationwide is not returning this year.)
"The Nationwide ad sucked the oxygen out of the room at every Super Bowl Party in America," said Peter Daboll, CEO of AceMetrix, which measures the advertising effectiveness.
Squarespace is one advertiser that is sticking to comedy, enlisting comedy duo Key & Peele to promote its website services. Last year's ad starred Jeff Bridges meditating in a couple's bedroom that was deemed by some as too esoteric.
"One of the things we really wanted to make sure we were doing is being entertaining," said Squarespace founder and CEO Anthony Casalena. "At the end of day watching Super Bowl, it's a sporting event, you're with friends. We wanted to make something that people had fun with."