We Watched Two Decades of Super Bowl Ads. Here’s What They Say About Climate Change.
Toyota debuted its hybrid Prius for the first time at the Super Bowl in 2005, calling it “good news for planet Earth.” In 2006, there were two Super Bowl ads for new hybrids: one for Toyota’s Camry hybrid, and one ad for Fords’ new Escape hybrid in which Kermit the Frog concluded that maybe it was easy being green, after all. But it’s taken 17 years and over 900 total ads for climate change to finally break through at the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl is one of the most popular TV events in America. In fact, it was watched by nearly 100 million Americans this year. It cost companies an average of $6.5 million to reach this audience, which is just 30 seconds. In 2022, the Super Bowl featured more climate-related ads than any other Super Bowl, with most of them focusing on electric cars and an advertisement for electric charging technology.
The majority of all green-focused Super Bowl ads over the years have been for cars—a trend that’s been increasing recently. In past years, such ads were more typical car-marketing fare, touting clean diesel and fuel efficiency, or throwing “and it’s a hybrid/electric” in at the end. This Kia Optima ad is an example.
These stories are loud, stars-studded, and often put sustainability first. Will Ferrell attempted to unite America in an ad last year for General Motors. Mike Myers, who is also a GM spokesperson, reprises his role of Dr. Evil in an ad in which the character became consumed with the idea that if he took over General Motors’ headquarters, he could save the planet with an all-electric vehicle fleet—perhaps the first time the words “carbon footprint” had been mentioned in such a prominent TV ad.
Super Bowl ads are like “parts of a time capsule of where we are in society,” says Rick Suter, editor for USA Today’s Ad Meter which has been tracking and rating Super Bowl ads for 34 years. And this year, he says, is the “defining point” for car companies creating an in-your-face buzz around EVs.
These commercials show a larger shift in car industry. EVs accounted to 8.5% last year of the worldwide market for new cars. It is a new record. This space is seeing more investment from brands. General Motors plans to make zero emission vehicles by 2035, according to one example.
“We’re glad to see more electric vehicle ads featured during the Super Bowl,” says Katherine García, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign. But one “flashy annual ad” isn’t enough so long as companies continue producing gas-powered cars, she notes.
The number of green ads aired during the Super Bowl has grown slowly but surely since the early 2000s, the majority (at least 28 out of 43) of which are by car companies, according to a review of this year’s ads and archives at superbowl-ads.com and AdAge. One of the most memorable ads was the 2014 Super Bowl Electric Car Ad by Smartcar. The 2015 ad featured Katie Couric looking confused about how an electric BMW car might work. (Along the way, she also acts flummoxed by the concept of wind turbines, though those don’t really have much to do with electric drive-trains.) And in a 2017 spot for Kia, Melissa McCarthy repeatedly gets injured trying to save whales and the polar ice caps, eventually coming to the conclusion that if she wants to be “an eco-warrior,” her better option is to buy a Kia Niro hybrid.
Suter believes that the 2019 Super Bowl was when sustainability became mainstream. That’s when Budweiser—perhaps one of the most iconic Super Bowl brands—aired its “wind never felt better” ad showcasing a Dalmatian, its ears flapping in the wind, to highlight that the company was now using wind power to help brew its beer.
Then came 2020 and suddenly it wasn’t a one-off moment anymore. Hummer and Audi were all advertising luxury EVs. And then there was Chipotle’s burrito last year that could save the world through improving soil health. These ads are like movies now, said Suter, and companies want a hit: “It’s a great way to get people talking.”