The Super Bowl has thrived for half a century in the fertile fields of traditional television, which are quickly becoming a disaster zone. Americans under 35 watch at least 40 percent less traditional TV (that is, on the cable bundle) than they did in 2010. Ratings are drowning for everything on television, from broadcast to cable and from news to scripted programming. Although the big game might be dog-paddling to stay above water, it is still vulnerable: The Nielsen rating for the Super Bowl has declined every year since 2015.
Even as football’s viewership base erodes, political and social forces might complicate the very identity of the Super Bowl.
Traditionally, everything about the big game was designed to offer respite from controversy or partisan rancor. The pregame ceremony featured enough flags to furnish several presidential inaugurations. A noncontroversial artist belted out the national anthem before a patriotic burst of fireworks. An unobjectionable pop star (especially in the post-Nipplegate era) played PG hits during the halftime show. In the commercial breaks, Pixar-ish animals told Jay Leno–esque jokes to sell cars and soda.
But big companies, including those paying for prominent ad placement during the Super Bowl, are learning that controversy can be good for business. For example, Nike partnered with the quarterback Colin Kaepernick to support his calls for criminal-justice reform, and Gillette took on toxic masculinity.
Read: Millennials stare into the void, and Gillette stares back
“You’re seeing corporations embrace social-justice messaging because their consumers want it, their employees want it, and their potential employees want it,” said Nneka Logan, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Tech. “The historical disjuncture between corporations and activists is breaking down.”
In an otherwise crowded and fragmented media environment, controversies can earn attention on television news. “What corporations want to do when they veer left is be noticed, incite conversations, and feature on TV news as editorial,” said Tom Goodwin, the executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media.
Right-wingers burning Nike socks? That’s an advertisement for Nike. A CNN panel debating Gillette’s foray into gender relations? An ad for Gillette. Fox News ridiculing Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign? Free marketing for Starbucks. “Even the backlash can draw positive attention to the brand,” Logan said, “as long as it focuses people’s attention on something the company sincerely wants to talk about.”
One has every reason to expect this political tone to take over the Super Bowl just as it’s taken over the rest of the public sphere. In fact, in a recent Super Bowl, Budweiser went so far as to project the somehow controversial message that immigrants are actually good.