Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Super Bowl Commercials That Were Marred By Controversy

Advertising has always had a tricky line to walk. Commercials, even high-profile Super Bowl commercials, have to strike a delicate balance between irony and sincerity, between art and consumerism. Like the astronauts perilously reentering the atmosphere in "Apollo 13," if they don't get the angle of approach just right they'll either miss their target entirely or come in too hot and burst into flames. You'd think Super Bowl commercials, which cost more and more every year and get one of the biggest guaranteed audiences in all of television, would be perfectly engineered never to offend anyone, but every year one or two of them crash and burn in controversy.

Perhaps advertisers feel a heightened pressure to stand out; after all, many people openly admit to watching the Super Bowl just for the ads. Some commercials attempt to reference "hot button" issues to be relevant, while others appeal to our sense of patriotism or history to connect their product to something timeless. Some build to an "ironic" twist that just plays cruel and straightforward, and some commit to a doomed premise that makes no sense from the start. All of these ads actually made it to air during the big game, only to find that their hail Mary ideas were met with widespread criticism. Here are some Super Bowl commercials that were marred by controversy.

Ram Trucks gets history wrong

Many Super Bowl commercials opt not to risk any sort of irony or humor and go for the "inspiring montage" effect. This 2018 ad for Ram pickup trucks leans into Super Bowl Sunday's status as an unofficial American holiday and treats us with a familiar series of images: soldiers are marching, ranch hands are herding, and teachers are teaching. Ram trucks recur amidst all of the inspiring, blue-collar Americana: at one point a truck hauls an entire church down the street. It's not subtle, but it's pretty standard stuff, except for one thing: the images are set to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Using the words from MLK's "Drum Major Instinct" speech is enough crass exploitation to make this one of the most ridiculous car commercials ever; helping to sell trucks isn't the type of "service" that the legendary civil rights leader was talking about. But students of history pointed out that that speech contained many anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist points, including pointing out the hollowness of car commercials specifically. King pointed out that the desire to be important and have an impact on the world is often hijacked by advertisers: "In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car."

The backlash online was immediate and widespread: Fiat Chrysler Automotive (which owns Ram Trucks), the ad agency responsible, and even Intellectual Properties Management (the part of King's estate that agreed to the usage), all had to answer an angry public. 

Nationwide's homage to The Sixth Sense

Nationwide Insurance learned during Super Bowl 49 in 2015 that there's a time and place to bring up serious subjects. Their "Boy" advertisement seemed like a normal enough commercial, as a young actor listed all the things he would "never" be able to do, like travel the world on a sailboat, or learn to fly with a jetpack. The twist, like a backward "The Sixth Sense," is that the little boy was dead the whole time. From the images in the commercial, he either drowned in the tub, poisoned himself with a Tide pod, or was crushed by a television. It was all part of a campaign to raise awareness of preventable childhood accidents, pointing viewers to the website makesafehappen.com.

Nobody, of course, wants children to die preventable deaths, but in the midst of otherwise funny and upbeat Super Bowl ads, "Boy" hit a sobering and unwelcome note and the effect was intentional. Nationwide Chief Marketing Officer Matt Jauchius told Fast Company that "we chose a more serious tone precisely because it will be so different than most commercials during the Super Bowl."

But the reaction was overwhelmingly negative online. The ad seemed particularly designed not just to get its message across, but to lure viewers by appearing at first to be more lighthearted, with imaginative CGI "cooties" and fantastical settings. Within two months, Jauchius had perhaps not coincidentally left Nationwide for other pastures.

Groupon's tasteless Tibet reference

In 2011, Groupon attempted to do a sort of parody of the "serious issue" kind of Super Bowl commercial, with an awkward and almost unbelievably callous offensive result. The spot opens with shots of Tibet, narrated by "Leverage" star Timothy Hutton — he even says "I'm Timothy Hutton," implying that we're in for the kind of serious Public Service Announcement type ad about an important cause where a celebrity identifies themself out loud. But in one of the most spectacularly bad pivots in commercial history, he goes on: "The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy, but they still whip up an amazing fish curry."

Groupon aired two similar commercials during the game, where Cuba Gooding Jr. and Elizabeth Hurley did the same bait and switch with endangered whales and rainforests, respectively. But the Tibet spot, which turned the occupation of an entire country into a punchline, drew the widest and loudest criticism online. Parody is a useful tool for advertising — referencing or inverting another type of advertisement can be a great way to hook viewers and play with expectations. But parodying the idea of charitable giving seems like the worst option to get people excited about saving an extra 15% at a Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.

Snickers' accidental kiss

2007 doesn't seem like that long ago, but it was a time when the idea of two men kissing was a go-to mainstream comedic premise. That was basically the entire pitch for the Adam Sandler movie, "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," that year, and also the entirety of the basis for Snickers' Super Bowl ad, where two auto mechanics treat a Snickers bar like the spaghetti noodle from "The Lady and the Tramp." In a moment of near-hysterical panic after kissing, the two men rip off patches of their own chest hair.

Even though it was popular enough with the public at the time — the spot placed ninth in USA Today's annual Super Bowl ad poll where it was innocuously described as "Mechanics enjoy candy bar" — it was condemned by both the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and removed from the air not long thereafter. A spokesperson for Masterfoods, the parent company of Snickers-maker Mars, Inc., issued a statement that reads as a maddening non-apology by today's standards: "We know that humor is highly subjective and understand that some people may have found the ad offensive. Clearly that was not our intent."

A GM machine gives up the ghost

General Motors bummed everyone out for an entire minute during 2007's Super Bowl with their "Robot" ad. Allegedly to demonstrate their "obsession" with quality, the commercial shows an assembly line robot getting fired after dropping a screw and trying a series of other jobs before rolling itself off a bridge in despair. The fact that it "wakes up" back in the factory, the entire journey being just a dream, didn't soften the blow for a viewing public that's been personifying machines since well before "The Brave Little Toaster."

Mike Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, wrote an open letter to GM calling for the spot to be removed from the air, citing the risk of "suicide contagion" by portraying ending one's life as the logical progression after getting fired. He pointed out further that the ad was "even more distasteful in light of the fact that General Motors has engaged in a major restructuring, causing many long-term employees to be let go. Unemployment is known to result in greater rates of depression and suicide." Also facing pressure from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, GM soon agreed to edit the bridge-jumping portion out of the ad.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

GoDaddy's puppy prank

GoDaddy's failed attempt at a Super Bowl ad in 2015 is a lesson once again in the limited powers of parody, and the importance of timing. Conceived as a specific parody of Budweiser's commercial the same year where a lost puppy is reunited with its owner, GoDaddy stages the same scenario only for the owner to exclaim "Buddy! I'm so glad you're home ... because I just sold you on this website I built with GoDaddy!" Whereupon "Buddy" is unceremoniously shipped off in a van driven by longtime GoDaddy spokesperson Danica Patrick. 

It turns out people aren't big fans of being cruel to adorable small animals, or of seeming to sarcastically mock them right to their fuzzy little faces: after previewing the ad on NBC's "TODAY" show, GoDaddy faced massive online backlash including a 42,000-signature strong change.org petition before the end of the day. Crucially, without the context of having already seen the Budweiser ad, the GoDaddy spot just plays as mean-spirited and almost nonsensical; imagine seeing "Scary Movie" without having seen all the other films that it references. The commercial would be pulled before the Super Bowl and replaced with a hastily-made, sincere spot about small business owners. 

Just For Feet turns back the clock by centuries

Defunct footwear retailer Just For Feet's 1999 ad in Super Bowl 33 truly boggles the mind. The fact that no one objected at any stage of the process – which involves lots of money and multiple rounds of approval — to the idea of depicting a team of militaristic white commandos tracking down an African man and drugging him to put shoes on his feet is beyond comprehension.

Columnist Bob Garfield succinctly wondered in Ad Age's Super Bowl commercial round-up: "Have these people lost their minds?" An anonymous employee of Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency that made the ad, feebly protested the massive backlash, pointing out to Salon that two of the "commandos" were actually non-white, but it's easy to miss in the fast-paced 30-second spot. But that only incrementally softens the optics of an ad that was so disastrous for Just For Feet that the company sued Saatchi & Saatchi for $10 million, essentially claiming malpractice. The case would ultimately be dropped when Just For Feet went bankrupt less than a year after the Super Bowl.

Salesgenie's Chinese Pandas

It seems like a pretty safe bet to take a page from Disney and use talking animal characters in a Super Bowl commercial. All you need to do is avoid obvious mistakes; for example, just don't create panda characters with exaggerated Chinese accents named Ching Ching and Ling Ling that operate a business selling bamboo. But that's exactly what Vinod Gupta, the owner of Salesgenie's parent company, InfoUSA, did in 2008. "We never thought anyone would be offended," he told the New York Times. Unlike many CEOs investing millions in a Super Bowl, Gupta took the unusual step of writing the ad himself instead of hiring an agency. 

An immigrant from India, Gupta pointed out that "people have been making fun of my accent for years ... and I love it." Unfortunately, Gupta's casual attitude about accents didn't translate to Super Bowl audiences, who focused mainly on the several stereotypes in the ad's premise and not the execution. The commercial also implies it exists in a bizarre world where animals have to make enough money or they'll be forced to go "back to the zoo."

Holiday Inn's insensitive makeover spot

Although progress slowly happens, it's still a battle for equality and representation for transgender people in contemporary media between Hollywood failing to provide roles in major films and Netflix defending its right to make fun of their existence in comedy specials. Back in 1997, it was obviously even worse, as this bizarre Holiday Inn Super Bowl ad exemplifies. It starts as a straightforwardly sexist ad, objectifying a woman with close-ups of her body while listing the price of various "new" parts, implying cosmetic surgery on her nose, lips, and "chest."

The big twist is when an old classmate recognizes her as "Bob Johnson?!" — the ad compares a sex-change operation to Holiday Inn's plans to renovate their hotels, the actual point of the commercial. Holiday Inn pulled the ad after it received complaints by telephone, which was still the primary way of complaining about things in 1997. Without a 24/7 news cycle or social media back then, it didn't generate the kind of viral controversy that it would today, but it's definitely one of the Super Bowl ads that have aged the worst.

Carl's Jr. implies too much nudity

No list of Super Bowl commercial controversies would be complete without mentioning the genre's strange relationship with the female form. Advertisers eager to catch the attention of a largely straight male fanbase often lean on sex appeal, but they have to do so within the family-friendly confines of network television standards. So we end up with an endless litany of oddly-restrained raunchiness and commercials that show as much skin as they can with all the subtlety of late-night Cinemax, but when Janet Jackson's shirt rips during halftime it set off one of the most absurdly chaste fashion controversies ever.

The most extreme example (out of many) is probably this 2015 "All Natural" ad for burger chain Carl's Jr. Supermodel Charlotte McKinney strolls through a farmer's market, turning heads and whispering seductively about burgers like an all-American Lady Godiva. We learn only at the end of the commercial that she's been wearing a bikini the entire time, for most of the commercial she's framed suggestively to imply she's naked in a way usually reserved for "Austin Powers" movies. The ad was only the latest in a series of objectionable, objectifying ads for Carl's Jr. ABC News reported swift backlash on Twitter, with users even creating the hashtag #womenaremorethanmeat as a specific response.

Focus on the Family's Tim Tebow non-story

In 2010, with prices for Super Bowl ads relatively stagnant due to the post-housing-crisis recession, CBS made an exception to its historical policy not to accept ads for political causes and aired a commercial produced by the fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family. The ad itself is relatively vague — NFL player Tim Tebow's mother Pam recounts that he was a "miracle baby" that "almost didn't make it into this world," and doesn't mention abortion or the Christian faith at all. But the ad invites viewers to go to the organization's website for the "full Tebow story," and presumably some much more explicit anti-choice messaging.

CBS defended its decision in a curt statement, saying that its previous apolitical policy "did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue." But pro-choice and liberal advocacy groups roundly criticized the network's decision, a firestorm that indirectly played into Focus on the Family's hands. As the conservative Baptist Press pointed out at the time, the protests "led to an untold number of newspaper, radio and TV stories about the supposed controversy, which in turn led to people actually anticipating seeing the ads."

Volkswagen says Get Happy (with cultural appropriation)

Volkswagen had a simple message in 2013, the timeless appeal of all carmakers: driving our car will make you happy. They chose to drive this message home with a short story about a white man from Minnesota cheering up all of his office-drone co-workers by speaking in a buoyant, unmistakably Jamaican account. Over the strains of a Caribbean-style cover of "C'mon Get Happy!" (aka "The Partridge Family" theme song), Dave eventually takes two other coworkers for a ride in his red VW beetle, who return speaking the same way.

Despite a wave of criticism after previewing the spot, including the damning phrase "like blackface with voices," Volkswagen aired it during the Super Bowl anyway. Volkswagen, for their part, claimed that extensive market research, including with Jamaican-Americans, had led them to the conclusion that the ad wasn't offensive; self-identified "Jamerican" Carol Watson also vouched for the ad in an Ad Age column. But controversy, no matter how sunny the vibes involved, remains eternally in the eye of the beholder, and not the corporations.