The Most Controversial Super Bowl Ads That Ever Aired
Since the Super Bowl is the most watched TV event in America, companies that can afford ads are eager to showcase their brands during the game. In fact, it’s been estimated almost 50% of viewers actually watch the commercials more than they watch the game. However, as marketers strive for attention-grabbing commercials, many have learned they’re walking a fine line between driving sales and doing major damage to their brand. Here we’ll take a look at 15 of the most controversial Super Bowl ads of all time – some of which were even banned by networks.
1. AMVETS national anthem ad
- Year: 2018
After the NFL invited veterans service organization AMVETS to place an ad in the Super Bowl LII program, it declined to run what AMVETS submitted. The ad’s two-word message read “#PleaseStand.” The ad was a response to those who chose to kneel during the national anthem at NFL games throughout the season to protest police brutality.
AMVETS explained the message in a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “It’s a simple, polite request that represents the sentiment of our membership, particularly those whose missing or paralyzed limbs preclude standing,” wrote National Commander Marion Polk. The NFL said through a spokesperson it didn’t feel the program was a place for advertising considered a political statement.
Next: A lumber company ad hits on a hot political issue.
2. 84 Lumber border wall commercial
- Year: 2017
A Pennsylvania building supply company called 84 Lumber created fans and foes alike when it released a commercial featuring a Mexican mother and daughter attempting to cross the U.S. border and encountering a gigantic wall. In the meantime, we are shown a group of construction workers completing a project using lumber. This much aired during the Super Bowl, and viewers were directed to visit the company’s website to view the rest.
The video continued on the website, showing the mother and daughter finding a large set of wooden doors in the wall, through which they are able to enter the U.S. Onscreen text reads, “The will to succeed is always welcome here.” Viewer reaction was mixed: Some expressed outrage that the company would advocate illegal immigration. Others viewed the ad as a much-needed reminder of the need for compassion when it comes to immigration.
Next: A Doritos ad offended pro-choice groups.
3. Doritos ultrasound ad
- Year: 2016
A Doritos Super Bowl commercial incited outrage among some groups when it showed an oblivious dad-to-be eating Doritos while his wife underwent an ultrasound. As the fetus can be seen moving around to try and get a chip wielded by the father, the frustrated wife throws the corn chip across the room. The fetus reacts by making a violent entry into the world, to the alarm of the mom, dad, and doctor. The ad ends abruptly there.
A pro-choice group responded promptly on Twitter, calling the ad sexist and saying it used the “tactic of humanizing fetuses.” Other viewers were put off by the spot as well, tweeting “I’m NEVER EATING DORITOS AGAIN. Literally wtf was that commercial.” and “Made by white dudes for white dudes … NEVER EATING DORITOS AGAIN.”
Next: A depressing Nationwide ad features a dead child.
4. Nationwide dead kid commercial
- Year: 2015
Nationwide Insurance packed an emotional punch when it aired a Super Bowl commercial in which a curly-haired boy of around 10 tells viewers all the things he will never experience in life (riding a bike, traveling the world) because he is dead. “I couldn’t grow up because I died from an accident,” he says.
After a firestorm of criticism was aimed at the depressing commercial, Nationwide responded. “Preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America. Most people don’t know that. Nationwide ran an ad during the Super Bowl that started a fierce conversation. The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance.”
Next: A pornography company sought to run an ad.
5. Pornhub.com ad
- Year: 2013
Pornhub.com submitted an ad for the Super Bowl – and as bland as it was, CBS rejected it. The 20-second commercial featured an elderly couple sitting on a park bench facing at a frozen-over lake, gazing at each other with knowing smiles on their faces.
A CBS spokesperson explained to Pornhub.com the network’s decision to block the ad: “CBS [does] not permit advertising related to pornography. Therefore, we cannot accept your submission.” BuzzFeed speculated Pornhub.com knew the spot would be rejected and had no plans to spend $4 million to run the ad. Either way, the company enjoyed some free coverage when websites featured the commercial video.
Next: A racy GoDaddy video featured a model and a nerd.
6. GoDaddy’s sexy nerd ad
- Year: 2013
The same year the Pornhub.com ad was rejected, another company had better luck getting in a commercial with a sexual theme. A GoDaddy Super Bowl commercial featured a close-up scene of Victoria’s Secret model Bar Rafaeli kissing an awkward, unattractive nerd. “It’s a beautiful thing. Get your domain and website,” flashed on the screen. The pair did 45 takes of the kiss for this ad, and two other versions of the ad were rejected by CBS for being indecent.
The day after the ad aired, GoDaddy said its hosting sales jumped 45% and new mobile customers increased by 35%. The company added 10,000 customers in total the Monday after the Super Bowl.
Next: A Skechers ad offended animal rights groups.
7. Skechers dog racing ad
- Year: 2012
Skechers ran a Super Bowl ad in 2012 featuring Mr. Quiggly, a tiny French Bulldog who is only able to outrun a pack of Greyhounds because he’s wearing Skechers shoes. The little dog crosses the finish line, looks at the camera, and appears to smile.
Animal lovers maintained the ad glamorized dog racing, which can be abusive to animals. More than 10,000 people signed a petition requesting Skechers pull the ad, but nevertheless, it did air.
Next: A Carl’s Jr. burger ad was a little too hot.
8. Carl’s Jr. Southwest Patty Melt ad
- Year: 2012
In a Carl’s Jr. commercial deemed too hot for Super Bowl standards, Model Kate Upton got sensual with a spicy patty melt in a drive-in theater. “Some Like It Hot” plays in the background.
The ad promoted the fast-food company’s new all-natural burger. This ad was by no means the first by the company featuring scantily-clad models holding burgers.
Next: An Groupon ad accused of trivializing Tibetans’ plight
9. Groupon Tibet fish curry ad
- Year: 2011
Groupon ran an edgy Super Bowl ad in 2011 which featured actor Timothy Hutton, who started out talking about strife in Tibet. “The people in Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy,” Hutton said. “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought a Groupon.com we are each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15.”
The ad came under fire for what some said trivialized the plight of the Tibetan people. The company ended up apologizing and didn’t run another TV commercial until 2014.
Next: A commercial promoting affairs didn’t make the cut.
10. Ashley Madison affair commercial
- Year: 2011
Another Super Bowl ad rejected by Fox in 2011 was from affairs site Ashley Madison. In the commercial, a woman (portrayed by porn star Savannah Samson) tells her coworkers she found out her husband is having an affair. Her coworkers respond with, “Welcome to the club,” and everyone starts making out. In denying the ad, Fox said it “deemed the … spot is not acceptable.”
Next: Homeaway.com accused of trivializing child abuse
11. Homeaway.com test baby commercial
- Year: 2011
Vacation home rental company Homeaway.com ran an ad called “Test Baby” in 2011 in which a baby (portrayed by a doll) was thrown into a plate glass window. The intent of the advertisement was to showcase everything that can go wrong when a family rents a cramped hotel room on vacation. In addition to the baby being catapulted across the room, older kids can be seen fighting on the bed.
The ad spawned much criticism for its portrayal of violence against children. Some reprimanded the company, pointing out how debilitating head injuries are for thousands. Homeaway.com promptly issued a response that company employees love families and babies, and including the comment, “We worked hard to make it clear the ad was not to be taken seriously.”
Next: A Tim Tebow ad pro-choice groups took issue with
12. Tim Tebow anti-abortion ad
- Year: 2010
A big Super Bowl commercial controversy in 2010 surrounded an actual NFL player-to-be. Tim Tebow’s mother appeared in the anti-abortion-themed commercial from a conservative Christian group. In the ad, Pam Tebow explained it was recommended for medical reasons she abort a baby. She chose not to do so, and it turns out the baby was Tim, who also appeared in the commercial.
The choice by CBS to run the ad came under criticism from women’s rights groups. “The ad is frankly offensive,” said Erin Matson from the National Organization for Women. “It is hate masquerading as love. It sends a message that abortion is always a mistake.”
Next: Nude Mickey Rooney proved to be too much.
13. Airborne Mickey Rooney ad
- Year: 2009
Mickey Rooney’s bare behind was apparently too much for Fox when it rejected an Airborne Super Bowl ad. In the spot, Rooney is reading the paper in a crowded sauna when someone behind him coughs. He rushes out, dropping his towel on the way.
Fox said it deemed the spot “inappropriate for broadcast.” An Airborne executive protested that it was “tantamount to showing a baby’s bottom.”
Next: A Snickers ad struck a chord with gay rights groups.
14. Snickers “Accidental Kiss” commercial
- Year: 2007
A Snickers Super Bowl spot drew criticism in 2007 when it featured two auto mechanics inadvertently in a lip lock as they both bit into ends of a candy bar. Three gay rights groups stated the commercial was offensive and homophobic. This prompted a hasty retreat when Mars, Inc. pulled the commercial from TV and its website. In a statement, the company said it was just trying to be funny and didn’t intend to offend. But for many people, it seemed the damage was already done.
Next: The final visual for Rolling Rock was over the top.
15. Rolling Rock foul ball commercial
- Year: 2007
Was this Rolling Rock ad a little too cringeworthy for half of the Super Bowl’s viewers? We didn’t find out since the ad was rejected. In it, a baseball player hits a foul ball that ricochets throughout the park, hitting dozens of guys below the belt. In the end, the fortunate two who happen to be wearing some protection are able to sit back and enjoy their beer. What may have pushed Fox over the top was the final visual paired with the tagline, “Remember your cup.”
Next: A religious ad was banned.
16. United Church of Christ “Bouncer” ad
- Year: 2004
A United Church of Christ ad proclaimed the organization’s willingness to accept people of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientation, stating, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” Bouncers are shown outside a church, turning away some people and families. The ad was banned from airing during the Super Bowl, according to CNN, because it violated policies “that take positions on matters of public controversy.”
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