The Super Bowl is about more than just football. As NFL fans tune in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday 11 February, viewers can also expect to see funny, memorable, and even some controversial ads.
The Super Bowl is known to be the most coveted spot for consumer attention among advertisers. But as advertising during the big game becomes increasingly competitive – and wildly expensive – companies are forced to come up with innovative ways to stand out from the crowd, even if that means pushing a few buttons.
Considering the Super Bowl is one of the most-watched events of the year, it’s no surprise that some commercials have sparked outrage on social media and have even received criticism from a number of human rights groups.
From a commercial about robot suicide to an ad spot for cryptocurrency, these are some of the most controversial Super Bowl ads of all time.
Nationwide’s “Boy” Commercial
In 2015, Nationwide Insurance sparked outrage when it aired its “Boy” commercial during the Super Bowl XLIX. The ad depicts a young boy describing milestones he will never reach, which viewers come to learn is because he died in an accident.
The commercial, intended to be a public service announcement for preventable childhood injuries, doesn’t necessarily depict anything outrageous or widely controversial. But the ad received negative attention at the time because viewers found it depressing. Looking back, the commercial isn’t exactly what football fans want to see while cheering on their favourite team and stuffing their faces with buffalo wings.
Carl’s Jr “All-Natural” Commercial
It seems 2015 was the year for controversial Super Bowl ads. That same year, fast food chain Carl’s Jr attempted to promote its “All-Natural” burger with a super-sexy ad starring model Charlotte McKinney. The commercial shows McKinney attracting stares from men while dressed in scantily-clad clothing before taking a bite out of the All-Natural burger. The ad received criticism for objectifying women; one person tweeted it “set feminism back four decades”.
General Motors’ “Robot Suicide” Commercial
General Motors was the subject of controversy in 2007 when its Super Bowl ad featured a line robot throwing itself off a bridge after being fired by the car manufacturer for failing to do its job. The ad was intended to show “GM’s commitment to quality,” but it received criticism from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who said that the ad sent dangerous and insensitive messages.
“The ad, in its carelessness, portrays suicide as a viable option when someone fails or loses their job,” the group said. “Research has also shown that graphic, sensationalised or romanticised descriptions of suicide deaths in any medium can contribute to suicide contagion, popularly referred to as ‘copycat’ suicides.”
GM pulled the ad five days later.
PETA’s “Last Longer” Commercial
Nonprofit organisation PETA is no stranger to controversial ads, but this one takes the cake. The NSFW commercial, which aired during the 2016 Super Bowl, showed two couples having sex. One couple were meat eaters and the other were vegans.
The ad posed the idea that people who don’t eat meat last longer during sex, which is scientifically unproven. Ad executives ultimately banned the ad and deemed it too explicit for television.
Snickers “Kiss” Commercial
A commercial for Snickers candy bar received backlash in 2007 and was pulled for being too homophobic. The ad, which showed two men accidentally kissing and doing something “manly” in response, was criticised by the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for fuelling “anti-gay bullying”.
“This type of jeering from professional sports figures at the sight of two men kissing fuels the kind of anti-gay bullying that haunts countless gay and lesbian school children on playgrounds all across the country,” said Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese in a statement.
Groupon “Tibet” Commercial
In 2011, Groupon aired an insensitive commercial that used the crisis in Tibet to promote its online coupons. The ad – starring Timothy Hutton – told viewers that although Tibetan culture is in jeopardy, they “still whip up an amazing fish curry”.
While the ad was intended to mock celebrities with its slogan “Save the Money”, the ad still sparked backlash.
Tim Tebow’s “Focus on the Family” Commercial
NFL star Tim Tebow starred in this seemingly pro-life commercial alongside his mother, Pam, in 2010. Paid for by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, the ad insinuates that if Tebow’s mother had an abortion, the Heisman trophy winner would’ve never been born or achieved football stardom. Many women’s groups called on the ad to be pulled, but CBS decided it was “appropriate for air.”
84 Lumber’s “The Journey Begins” Commercial
This 2017 Super Bowl commercial from 84 Lumber sparked much debate for depicting a mother and daughter’s journey to the United States as they come face to face with a border wall. The nearly six-minute ad came just weeks after President Trump’s inauguration and was deemed by Fox as “too controversial”. Instead, the network aired a 90-second version without a border wall, and directed people to a website to watch the full version.
While some believed the ad used immigration as a marketing tool, others pointed out the hypocrisy. The CEO of the hardware company said she backed Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
GoDaddy 2015 Commercial
Website builder GoDaddy has been known for its controversial Super Bowl ads and 2015 was no different. In the ad, a puppy falls off a pickup truck and finds its way home – only to be sold by its owner.
The commercial shocked viewers, especially dog lovers, and a Change.org petition to remove the ad gained more than 42,000 signatures just one day after the teaser was released. Ultimately, CEO Blake Irving decided to pull the ad and air a dog-free version during that year’s Super Bowl.
Coinbase QR Code Commercial
In 2022, an ad for cryptocurrency was declared the most “annoying” commercial of Super Bowl LVI. The commercial simply showed a colour-changing QR code slowly moving around a black screen. When the QR code was scanned, viewers were taken to the Coinbase website, which told visitors: “Less talk, more Bitcoin”.
While the ad wasn’t necessarily controversial, it was perhaps the most obnoxious spot to air on television.