The Most Controversial Ads in Super Bowl History

As Super Bowl LV kicks off this evening, many around the country and the world will tune in to see the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While there will be many who will cheer on one team or the other, some will be watching just for the commercials.

Since the inception of the Super Bowl, companies have seen the value of advertising their brand on one of the year's biggest stages. While in the beginning, companies would pay a few hundred thousand dollars for a 30-second spot, today, a 30-second ad costs millions of dollars.

For that amount of money, advertisers would hope for a good return on their investment. And while most ads are successful in eliciting a response from viewers (whether it is laughter, tears, or making them think about an important issue), other ads can be seen as ill-advised.

Some ads seem to miss the mark or leave viewers confused. Others have left viewers angry to the point of lawsuits or turning away from the product. Here is a brief list of some of the most controversial ads in Super Bowl history.

Hyundai- The Elevator (2019)

A fairly recent entry, this ad from Hyundai featured actor Jason Bateman as an elevator operator. As a couple enters the elevator, they inform him that they are going car shopping, to which he replies they are “Going down…way down.” The ad then shows other occupants getting off at different hellish scenarios such as root canals, jury duty, and the middle seat on an airplane. There was some backlash from the vegan community when one scene includes being invited to a “vegan dinner” featuring beet loaf. PETA even chimed in on Twitter criticizing the car company for their “outdated ideas.”

Nationwide Insurance- The Boy (2015)

Nationwide threw a curveball to viewers with this 2015 ad. What started with a boy talking about things he would never have to worry about (getting cooties, married, growing up) we think will be a sweet coming of age tale. Then the truth is revealed. The boy is a ghost narrating how he died in a preventable childhood accident. While the message that Nationwide works to protect your family is nice, the shock value put a damper on more than a few viewers' evening.

Cheerios- Gracie (2014)

In a way, this ad took a negative situation and turned it into a positive. In 2013 Cheerios started an ad campaign featuring an interracial couple and their daughter. The company experienced some negative backlash from bigots criticizing the ads. Instead of backing down, Cheerios aired a new ad featuring the family discussing a baby brother and family dog. Cheerios released a statement that they celebrated all kinds of families.

84 Lumber- The Journey Begins (2017)

While using political and social issues in advertising is nothing new, 84 Lumber was criticized for their 2017 Super Bowl ad. The ad showed a mother and daughter on a dangerous journey to reach the United States. A longer, 6-minute version of the ad was teased on their site, which showed the pair encountering and overcoming a wall. The ad aired just weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, in which one of his campaign promises was stricter control of the U.S. border with Mexico. Many criticized the company for trying to capitalize on a hot-button political issue.

Focus on the Family (2010)

Focus on the Family is a pro-life organization that encourages anti-abortion legislation. In 2010 they ran an ad where a woman talked about her son, who she called her miracle baby, and how he almost didn’t happen. The child is then revealed to be 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. In reality, his mother had been advised to abort the baby but chose to have her child. Some women’s groups criticized the ad spot, while others supported the Tebow family’s strong Christian values. While the ad was very family-friendly, it did spark debate over a difficult topic.

Carl’s Jr.- All-Natural (2015)

One of the truths in advertising is “sex-sells”. Even Super Bowl ads are not immune to this adage, with such companies as Victoria Secret buying air time in the past. Usually, these ads are combined with some humor, and this Carl’s Jr ad was no exception. The burger chain is no stranger to using sex-appeal to sell their product, using recognizable beauties such as Kate Upton and Paris Hilton. The 2015 ad featuring Charlotte McKinney, supposedly walking through a farmer's market in the nude (it is revealed at the end that she is wearing shorts and a bikini-top) raised more than a few eyebrows. The commercial was seen as sexist and anti-feminist by many.

Snickers- Kissing (2007)

Snickers attempted to go for humor with the 2007 ad and criticized the LGBTQ community. The ad starts with two mechanics working on a car. They begin eating a Snickers “Lady and the Tramp” style and accidentally kiss. The pair then decided to “do something manly” to negate the act, such as hitting each other with tools and ripping out chest hair. The ad was deemed homophobic, and Snickers pulled the ad after realizing the error.

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