We Watched Two Decades of Super Bowl Ads. Here’s What They Say About Climate Change.

·4 min read
Sofi Stadium and NFL crews preparing for Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood.
Sofi Stadium and NFL crews preparing for Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood.

Super Bowl LVI at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. Credit - Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram—Getty Images

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.

The Super Bowl is the most watched TV event in the U.S. and this year nearly 100 million people were estimated to have tuned in. For companies hoping to get their product in front of this captive audience for just 30 seconds, it meant spending an average $6.5 million. And in 2022, there were the most climate-related advertisements of any Super Bowl ever, most of them focused on electric vehicles, as well as an ad 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. See, for example, this Kia Optima ad from 2012.

Today, they tend to be loud, star-studded stories that put sustainability front and center. Last year, for example, in an ad for General Motors, Will Ferrell tried to rally America to beat Norway in the EV race. And this year, also for GM, Mike Myers reprised his role as 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.

The commercials reflect a bigger shift in the car industry. Last year, EVs made up 8.5% of the global market for new cars, a new record. And more brands are investing in this space. General Motors, for example, aims to sell only vehicles with zero-emission tailpipes by 2035.

“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. A few memorable early ones include one of the first Super Bowl electric car ads in 2014 by Smart car, followed by a 2015 ad in which Katie Couric appears confused by how a BMW-made electric car could possibly 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.

But, says Suter, the moment when people really started taking notice of this emerging advertising trend towards sustainability, was in 2019. 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, Porsche, and Audi all had luxury EV ads. 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.”