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Racy Super Bowl Ads Aren't Dead -- They're Just Online

Help kids recognize the sneaky tactics advertisers use to target younger viewers.

Everyone knows that half the fun of the Super Bowl is the commercials. With advertisers paying $5 million per 30-second spot, the results are usually pretty spectacular -- and often sexist, stereotypical, and age-inappropriate. This year, though, things look different. Whether it's the prestige of the 50th anniversary of the Big Game, the reality that sex doesn't actually sell, or a growing family audience, Super Bowl 50's advertisers include earnest companies such as TurboTax and WeatherTech. Past offenders such as GoDaddy and Carl's Jr. are nowhere to be found -- on TV, that is. All those risqué ads have moved online, where it's easy -- and exciting -- for kids to hunt them down.

Billed as "Banned Super Bowl Commercials," "Too Sexy for TV," "Uncensored," and "Red-band Super Bowl movie trailers," clips featuring racy content are a huge trend in Internet advertising. And you can bet that the biggest advertising event on TV is also the biggest advertising event online. This year, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) premiered a super-steamy ad deemed too racy for the Super Bowl -- and naturally garnered tons of attention. So-called "banned" advertising takes advantage of loosey-goosey online promotion rules, while thumbing its nose at fuddy-duddy broadcast restrictions. While some commercials may have been legitimately rejected by the networks, many are deliberately designed to fail the networks' rules to increase their online cachet or specifically made for the Internet to add rogue appeal to a product.

Marketers know that labeling something "off-limits" whets viewers' appetites. And it's an especially effective strategy for today's notoriously difficult-to-reach digitally savvy kids and teens. Talking about how marketers constantly change their methods to get their message across is a great way to manage your kids' exposure to all kinds of advertising -- no matter where they encounter it. You may not be able to prevent your kids from seeing age-inappropriate advertising, but encouraging them to think critically can help them become smart consumers. Here are some things to talk about:


Unpack the appeal. Ask your kids if they prefer the "banned" ads. Do you think they were really "banned"? Why do companies boast that they are not allowed on TV? How do you feel about a company that markets one way on TV and another way online?

Talk about sexism and stereotypes in advertising. Ask your kids why companies use sex or exaggerated ethnic stereotypes to sell products. Is it worth degrading someone to make a commercial memorable? Would you buy a product associated with this kind of advertising?

Ask what makes commercials stand out. How do images, sound effects, logos, and videos make certain products seem appealing and like something you might want to buy?

Talk about advertisers' online marketing strategies. Bud Light is teasing its main Super Bowl commercial with a series of online-only ads featuring Amy Schumer and Seth Rogan. Ask your kids about the different audiences the ads are designed for and why the company uses the Internet to promote a commercial.

Express yourself. Use the hashtag #notbuyingit (developed by the Representation Project) to call out offensive advertising. 


Talk about the ads. Ask your kids why they think marketers go all out on Super Bowl Sunday. Ask which ads they like and why. Share the ones you like, and explain why you like them. Which ones are memorable?

Find out who's behind it. Ask your kids if they know who created a particular ad and which words, images, or sounds were used to attract their attention. Ask if the product was obvious or if the ad used other methods (such as videos of cool kids dancing on a beach) to communicate a positive association with the brand.

Talk about the spokesperson. Some ads use celebrities to influence purchases, and some ads use "regular people" (who are usually actors). Ask your kids which qualities a specific person (such as Jennifer Aniston) or a particular type of person (such as a generic goofy nerd type) communicates about the product.

Talk about emotional manipulation. Ask your kids which emotions or desires an ad prompts them to feel. Preteens take comfort in looking cool -- and that means they often associate positive emotions with certain brands. Get them to identify those feelings so they can recognize when ads are affecting them.

Discuss alcohol advertising. Alcohol ads play a role in underage drinking. Ideas and images that appeal to kids are often used in beer commercials. Ask your kids what they remember about specific ads and ask whether they know what was being advertised.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.