Growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1970s was a blessing for a kid obsessed with sports. The Pittsburgh Pirates won two World Series, in 1971 and 1979, and of course the Pittsburgh Steelers won a record four Super Bowls, IX, X, XIII, and XIV, from 1974 to 1979.
Though lots of things have changed since I left Pittsburgh more than 30 years ago, I'm still a die-hard Pirates and Steelers fan, but now a gay one, so as a result I've had to balance my love for football and baseball with the hard reality that when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance, the leagues' and Super Bowl advertisers' records have been less than stellar. But there is hope.
During my recent conversation with out NFL football star Ryan O'Callaghan, he talked about working with the NFL to increase awareness and inclusivity, that included meetings with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The commissioner is willing to help, perhaps partly because his brother is gay, but also because players, like O'Callaghan and former lineman Esera Tuaolo, have been advocating on our behalf.
O'Callaghan mentioned that he would be at the Super Bowl this year, and that he would be attending Tuaolo's third annual Inclusion Party. Tuaolo's event is supported by the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, and Outsports. The objective of the party, according to organizers, is to support the idea that inclusion comes from changing the whole NFL environment and not just relying on gay or bisexual players to do all the work. Someday, they'll be a first out gay man on the field.
There were some firsts and unique moments at this year's Super Bowl. The biggest is the San Francisco 49ers assistant offensive coach Katie Sowers, the first woman and first openly gay person to coach in a Super Bowl. Her hiring in 2017 was a step in the right direction both for women and the LGBTQ community. There's been a big spotlight on her since the 49ers earned their ticket to the Super Bowl and when news broke of her commercial for Microsoft. Because after all, the game might be important, but it's the battle of the ads off the field that drives the bottom line.
Most of the media coverage has been around Sowers being the first woman and does not mention the fact that she's a lesbian. That's what ad exec Donny Deutsch did when he explained the ad while discussing the hottest Super Bowl commercials on Good Morning America.
"Microsoft's effort is much more traditional and centered on the groundbreaking nature of Katie Sowers's achievements," explained Patrick Coffee, adverting correspondent at Business Insider. "The ad's theme is also more about gender equality and doesn't mention her sexuality. It's also more of a traditional product placement in that it shows her using the Surface on the field in her day job."
Among the droves of actual Super Bowl commercials and those that brands release only online as their "Super Bowl commercials," it seems that a handful of ads among a thousand is rather sad. For some insight, I asked Coffee, who was also a former editor at AdWeek, if there was a hesitancy among brands to feature LGBTQ people, particularly during the Super Bowl.
"No question, there has been a historical reluctance for brands to explore LGBTQ themes in Super Bowl ads; Coca-Cola was the first to do so in a 2014 ad that featured a same-sex couple," Coffee explained. "But I do believe that the topic is far less risky than it was even two or three years ago thanks to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage and changes in public perception driven by the increasing presence of openly gay public figures."
And, Coffee said, from his perspective, it's become easier for brands to include LGBTQ people in their advertising since public sentiment has evolved in a positive way in recent years as more Americans recognize that many of their coworkers, neighbors, and loved ones are LGBTQ.
Though Super Bowl LIV's ads featured more LGBTQ stars and themes, I asked Coffee if there was more behind this reality since it's all about the money. "This is both incredibly encouraging on a societal level and less impressive than it might seem from a marketing perspective, because as much as brands like to talk about values and stands on social issues, they will understandably hesitate to take any true risks on an ad whose price can soar well over $20 million when accounting for media buys, production costs, and other fees," Coffee said.
Besides the cost factor, there is another consideration that is the elephant in the boardroom -- protests and blowback. "Yes, the topic can still be divisive for some businesses. As recently as last week, some attributed the resignation of Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott to the controversy over the family-friendly organization's decision to air, pull, then reinstate ads for wedding registry Zola that featured a same-sex couple," Coffee said.
Coffee feels it's possible we will see some commentary, most likely from right-leaning critics or publications, complaining about too many LGBTQ ads during the game. "I doubt it will have much influence, and I would argue the presence of so many such ads shows that most brands looking to appeal to the widest possible audience on advertising's biggest day understand that this now includes acknowledging the LGBTQ community as a key part of their consumer base," he said.
In addition, according to Coffee, most "protests" like the One Million Moms' reaction to Sabra's commercial seem far more significant than they really are, thanks to amplification of social media and those who take to it to combat the hate.
I was curious about the Sabra ad, and I mentioned to Coffee a column I wrote previously about the growing popularity of drag queens and asked him if there was a reason, or a correlation between Sabra and drag queens? Perhaps because drag queens are becoming more popular, and they know how to draw a crowd? "I cannot claim to be an expert in drag culture, and I am unsure how it might relate directly to hummus," he said. "But my guess would be that, like so many brands, Sabra wants to get as much attention as possible to raise brand awareness."
And that, dear readers, is the real meaning of the Super Bowl game -- brand awareness, and the cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching it generates for businesses that advertise during the Super Bowl. The commercials get as much hype as the players. Currently, it really is all about the money; the added inclusion is just a nice side effect.
JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.