Like many Americans, I watched all four games of the NFL playoffs this weekend – a whopping 12 hours of football programming. I’m not a complete fool (well, maybe I am for getting my hopes up for the Vikings again), I am fully aware that the NFL is just another a product to sell advertising space, but there is no denying it’s damn good at what it does. In fact, the NFL produced the top three most-watched TV shows of 2019.

As many as 32 million viewers tuned into NBC for Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers. The following AFC matchup on CBS, between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, peaked at 31.9 million viewers. Although the viewership for Sunday’s NFL playoff games hasn’t been reported at this time, I would be surprised if it didn’t reach or surpass Saturday’s numbers.

So what did the NFL and TV’s major networks – NBC, CBS and FOX – do with a tenth of America’s eyeballs sitting on a silver platter? Did they raise awareness for the Australian bushfires or mention that one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors – AB InBev (aka Budweiser) – just made the “largest Pan-European corporate solar power deal in history?” Did Al Michael’s take a second to point out the 1,186 solar panels on the roof of Levi Stadium or the fact it was the first LEED Gold certified NFL stadium?

No, not at all, although the overhead camera did briefly capture the solar panels. In fact, after 12 hours of searching for anything Earth-friendly – I even counted someone just appearing to be happy on a subway train – I only came up with handful of moments that in any way promoted sustainability. Given its massive reach, NFL playoffs programming not only plays a role in defining American culture, it also serves as a means of gauging it. Between infrequent Earth-friendly flashes, this weekend’s prime time NFL advertisements painted a pretty clear picture of where mainstream America stands on sustainability.

Finding the green needle in a burning haystack of NFL ads

For the most part, commercial breaks during NFL games are a predictable barrage of pizza, cars, car insurance, newest smartphone, different car insurance, magic pill with two million side effects, beer and back to pizza. Usually, they’re pretty easy to tune out, but this weekend I analyzed them through a lens of sustainability and it was horrifying.

Starting with a sour Apple

The first commercial during the Vikings/49ers game was for the new iPhone – you know, the one with the three camera lenses and the one thousand dollar price tag. In it, a woman’s cheeks and hair are blowing in the wind as she takes slow-motion selfie (or “slofie”) video. When the camera widens, it reveals that her little sister (or daughter?) is blowing an incredibly strong hairdryer at the selfie star to make her hair blow. Another iPhone commercial shows three women dancing in a slofie with fog all around them. Sure enough, we zoom out and they are standing in a convenience store freezer with the door wide open to create the fog. Here’s a montage of four Apple/AT&T commercials for iPhone 11:

Video via Vimeo

The messaging here is pretty clear. iPhone 11’s make slofies, slofies make people happy, everything else is expendable. Now follow me down the rabbit hole. I’m not arguing that Apple and AT&T are promoting wastefulness, though they certainly aren’t discouraging it. They are just trying to sell iPhone’s by mirroring our culture back at us. Here’s what bugs me: I assume these commercials go through a rigorous process of writing, editing, filming, focus testing, re-writing, re-shooting, etc. and no one stopped to say “Hey, won’t the wastefulness turn people away?” Or, worse, somebody did point it out and it was decided that it wouldn’t turn enough people away, or that it was worth the risk.

Either way, Apple and AT&T (which track and sell our consumer preferences through data) have established that slofies are of higher priority to the mainstream than conserving water and energy.

“More meat!” says NFL sponsors

After the iPhone’s came the pizzas. So many pizzas. Pizzas with extra cheese, pizzas with extra meat, pizzas with delivery insurance. That’s right, pizza insurance is now a real thing.

What’s amazing is that Pizza Hut, Dominoes and Papa John’s essentially offer the same exact product and beg for attention with the same message: “The competition is depriving you of animal products and we’re here to save you.” It’s not enough to normalize our absurd consumption of meats and cheeses, they’re literally yelling for us to ramp it up.

The same is true for most other food companies – like Applebee’s, Taco Bell and McDonald’s – with products scientifically crafted to stimulate hunger and consumption instead of actually providing nourishment. However, the food industry also brought us two unlikely heroes in Dunkin’ and Burger King.

Plant-based patties to the rescue

Sometime in the second half of the Vikings/49ers game, Snoop Dogg appeared on screen and asked, “You want that plant-based great taste?” This commercial for Dunkin’s Beyond Sausage Sandwich made with a vegan Beyond Meat patty was the first green advertisement. I’d been waiting to see which celebrities would emerge in the mainstream media to promote green products and lifestyle choices. Snoop Doggy Dog was not on my radar, but I’ll take it!

Video via YouTube.

This shining moment didn’t last, and it wasn’t until Sunday night’s Seahawks vs Packers game that Burger King advertised their Impossible Whopper with a series of rough-and-tumble cowboys pretending they couldn’t tell the difference between a beef patty and a plant-based one. Neither Dunkin’ nor Burger King took the opportunity to explain why plant-based patties are important, but they did establish that it’s possible to enjoy a sandwich devoid of processed meat.

I’ll be interested to see if plant-based patties prove to be a foot in the door for more Earth-friendly products, or if they’re destined to be another food industry gimmick.

The over-correcting auto industry

You know when cartoon characters play innocent by walking around whistling nonchalantly? Based on this weekend’s commercials, the auto industry is somewhere between that and a 5-year-old kicking and screaming for being told to brush his/her teeth.

Let’s start with this: in 12 hours of programming, the only green advertising I saw from the auto industry was the word “hybrid” stamped on the back of a Toyota Rav4 as it whizzed off screen. Two, maybe three seconds of screen time for the whole weekend. This is an absolute shame because the industry is finally making reasonably priced hybrid SUV’s and choosing not to advertise them in prime time. Instead of putting their green achievements front and center and creating a narrative that they’re trying to change, they’re clinging to fossil fuels and glossing over any wrongdoing.

Other than the Toyota moment, the remaining car commercials were essentially a greenwash campaign hiding in plain sight. Consider this, what shot do all car commercials feature? A car all alone cruising through nature, be it a winding coastal highway or a snowy forest. There’s no one else in sight – it’s just you, the car and undisturbed wilderness. Now what’s the reality? A majority of time spent in cars is just yelling at other drivers and inanimate objects. The commercials tend to leave those parts out, though.

Enter Matthew McConaughey: the ultra-cool, ice fisherman/cowboy-that-can’t-tell-the-difference-between-a-meat-and-plant-based-patty Renaissance Man.

Video via YouTube.

Leaving aside the gross misrepresentation of ice fishing and the fact Matthew left the hatch door open with the heat and engine running (like our friends from the iPhone commercial), this Lincoln commercial pretty much sums the auto industry’s message that happiness is being alone in the newest car, and you’re missing out.

This commercial, and this Land Rover one with skier Mikaela Shiffrin, imply that gas-guzzling SUV’s (Lincoln Navigator gets a dismal 21 mpg highway) are necessary to enjoy the outdoors and are therefore an environmentally-friendly choice. Not only is this patently false, it suggests a disconnect between the natural world and “real life,” and distances the relationship between urban traffic emissions and climate change. This is what the auto industry is casually ignoring as it whistles innocently and dangles another 50 thousand dollars-worth of irony in front of 32 million people.

GMC, Ford and Dodge flaunting their bigger, badder, manlier trucks play the role of the screaming 5-year-old. Instead of owning up to its role in carbon emissions and cleaning up their acts, they’re doubling down. Nope, they don’t want to brush their teeth. They don’t care if their breath stinks and their teeth rot out. They don’t want to brush their teeth and no one can make them!

My favorite message, however, was in a Ford Escape commercial that showed a city bus packed so tight that the passenger’s faces were literally smeared against the windows. I guess Ford didn’t get the “subtlety” memo, but at least they stopped short of writing “F*&% buses!” on the back of a shiny new car.

After the auto makers establish a need, the insurance companies take turns claiming that they’re the easiest provider to give money to. Like snake oil salesmen, they advertise with misdirection and catchy phrases and fail to deliver any substance. You might as well be picking between a police lineup of Flo, the Geico Gecko, and the Mayhem Man. And what does it say about us that the insurance industry tries so hard to be cute and funny, leaving substance as an afterthought? Can we be trusted to choose our own insurance, or should we just trust that the “LiMu Emo” has our best interest at heart?

Meanwhile, no one bothers to mention that you can save a hell of a lot more money (and CO2 emissions) by not buying and insuring yet another car.

Homework for Super Bowl Sunday

According to CNBC, 98.2 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl and the most expensive commercial cost $5.25 million for 30 seconds. As you watch the game this year, don’t just try to pick out the funniest commercial, think about what advertisers will pay $5.2 million to say in front of 100 million people, and what it says about us.

What actions are they normalizing or promoting? What scars are they hiding with humor and cuteness? Most important, if any given product is so necessary, why does it require $5.2 million to promote?

Feature photo by Derek Story on Unsplash.