Super Bowl

Why More Super Bowl Ads Are Touting Philanthropy

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Credit: Hyundai

Is it the Super Bowl, or the Do-Gooder Bowl?

Hyundai is using an expensive 60-second ad spot in Sunday's game to plug an organization dedicated to fighting childhood cancer, the automaker said today, following the decision by Anheuser-Busch InBev to dedicate two big-game berths to its philanthropic efforts involving water.

Hyundai's ad in the fourth quarter will promote a nonprofit group it funds called Hyundai Hope on Wheels that battles pediatric cancer. The automaker and its agency, Innocean, will assemble the commercial with a combination of content captured on game day and pre-shot footage. The spot will air in the fourth quarter.

Anheuser-Busch InBev has already released its cause-based spots: a Budweiser ad touting the brewer's Red Cross-affiliated program donating canned water to areas hit by natural disasters and a Stella Artois commercial plugging a partnership with, which invests in clean water initiatives for developing countries.

The Super Bowl will of course be dominated by the usual assortment of silly ads and movietie-ins, like Lexus' ad that uses the Black Panther to raise interest for its $75,000 sports sedan. But AB InBev and Hyundai's move could foreshadow a pivot to more cause-based ads as marketers attempt to strike an emotional chord without touching hot-button political issues. In the Trump-era, anything even remotely controversial often sets off a social media frenzy that can put brands on the defensive. Who can argue with giving away water or curing cancer?

"Super Bowl ads always reflect the mood of the country to a certain degree," says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. "Our country has all sorts of issues right now and it's very polarizing. And this may be brands responding to that by embracing causes that everybody can rally around."

If more brands follow Budweiser's and Hyundai's lead, it will mark a departure from previous games. Only 6.4 percent of Super Bowl ads in the the past 10 years made a corporate social responsibility appeal, according to research from Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova School of Business. But he is projecting more cause-based ads this year because they are favored by millennials, he said in a report previewing this year's ad slate.

There are potential pitfalls with taking a philanthropic bent. For one, companies could look over-promotional or boastful. Viewers might wonder whether a brand spent more on the ad than the actual cause, for instance, notes Jay Porter, president of the Chicago office of PR agency Edelman. It's a bigger issue in the Super Bowl, where 30 seconds of airtime can run some $5 million. "But certainly if it's an authentic and deeply rooted connection to the cause or the specific organization, it's a great storytelling moment, if handled correctly," he says.

AB InBev and Hyundai have longevity on their side. The brewer has been running the disaster-relief water giveaway program for 30 years, and says it has donated 79 million cans in that time. But it has never before plugged the program on a stage like the Super Bowl, so it could get an awareness boost. Hyundai's motor division helps fund the Hope on Wheels program, along with its dealers. Since its inception, the organization says it has awarded more than $130 million for childhood cancer research.

Hyundai's ad is "not in response to the social and political environment," Hyundai Motor America Chief Marketing Officer Dean Evans said in a statement. Because Hyundai Hope On Wheels is celebrating its 20th anniversary, "we wanted to acknowledge the incredible work they've done in the fight against pediatric cancer." Innocean U..S. Chief Creative Officer Eric Springer added that the ad is "not only about selling cars; it's about expressing the 'hope' that is intrinsic to the Hyundai brand."

In a teaser ad released last week, Hyundai said it would "surprise millions" with the Super Bowl spot. Last year the automaker shot its commercial during the game and aired it in the post-game. It featured overseas troops watching the game in immersive VR pods that remotely reunited them with family members at the stadium.

This year's plan also includes a more traditional ad that will run during the pregame show and tout its subcompact SUV, called Kona.

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