With Super Bowl 50 taking place on Sunday, it’s that time of year again when we accept that football is secondary to the mega-hyped, mega-expensive commercials that air between the touchdowns. With 30-second spots often running up to $5 million, we always see plenty of high-profile ads for summer blockbusters, beer and Doritos. But this Super Bowl, those of us here at MEL were more interested in figuring out which commercials we won’t see this weekend. Or better put, we wanted to examine the products and services (essentially anything that qualifies as a vice or hot-button political issue) we almost never see advertised on television — for fear of pissing off either the government or the viewing public. Here’s what we found…
Why not? On April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law “The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1966” — an ordinance banning the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio (also one that notably required cigarette packages to carry a “Surgeon General’s Warning” label for the first time).
“After January 1, 1971, it shall be unlawful to advertise cigarettes and little cigars on any medium of electronic communication,” the Act proclaimed. The New Year’s Day start date wasn’t intended as a government-mandated New Year’s resolution. Rather, it allowed cigarette companies to run their ads during the popular New Year’s Day college bowl games — and for broadcasters to keep the money the companies paid them for the spots.
But don’t movies show them all the time? Yes, but American studio films feature a disclaimer at the end of the final credits that says producers didn’t receive compensation for featuring smoking. In 2007, the Motion Picture Association of America revised its ratings policy to take smoking into consideration. As such, the ratings board gave the 2014 World War II drama, The Monuments Men, a PG-13, noting, “some images of war violence and historical smoking.”
This is 2016. What about vaping? Funny you ask. Electronic cigarettes don’t fall under the so-called Cigarette Act, which is why e-cig maker NJOY was able to run spots during the Super Bowl in 2013 and 2014.
Why not? The short answer: a monopoly. Since 1998, Anheuser-Busch has had an agreement with the NFL that only its beers can be advertised during the Super Bowl. And that won’t be changing any time soon. Bud Light is the official beer of the NFL through the 2022 season — a deal that reportedly costs the company $250 million annually.
Isn’t that unfair to liquor brands? Yes, but obviously they’re figuring out creative solutions to get their name on TV during the medium’s biggest night. In 2003, Smirnoff avoided the Anheuser-Busch stranglehold on the Super Bowl by smartly started buying ads in local markets to shill their newest beverage — Smirnoff Ice Triple Black.
Why not? Legally speaking, CBS could run a TROJAN ad during Super Bowl 50. But the major networks usually relegate condom commercials to late-night programming. (And the Super Bowl is famously prude.)
How prude? Remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe mishap? Well, they’re still recovering from that.
In 2007, a TROJAN ad called “Evolve,” featuring a blonde in a bar surrounded by (actual) pigs ran on NBC and ABC — but not CBS and FOX — even though all had recently aired an ad that promoted condom use to protect against HIV. According to the New York Times, FOX rejected the the ad, saying, “Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.”
Marijuana, medical or otherwise
Why not? Currently, only four U.S. states (and Washington, D.C.) permit recreational marijuana use — so don’t expect to see any national weed advertising this year (or any time soon).
Emphasis on the word national. Medical marijuana has already started to advertise locally. In March 2014, the first-ever medical marijuana commercial hit American TV — in which the company MarijuanaDoctors.com began airing their campaign “Sushi Dealer” in states where medical use of the drug was legalized. The ad starred a shady back-alley sushi dealer trying to pimp his wares: “You wouldn’t buy sushi from this guy,” the voiceover says. “So why do you buy your marijuana from him?”
But again, this is 2016. What about vaping? Last summer, a Denver spot for vape pen maker NEOS was supposed to run during Jimmy Kimmel Live! But the local ABC affiliate in Denver pulled the plug — arguing that it wanted to hold off in order to investigate “the legality of airing a ‘federally illegal’ substance on federal airwaves.”
Why not? Not illegal, but not worth it. Simply: networks don’t want the political headache.
Is there anywhere in the world where you can see abortions advertised? In 2010, the U.K. aired its first abortion commercial for Marie Stopes International — a nonprofit that, according to its website, “provide[s] sexual and reproductive healthcare to millions of underserved women around the world.”
Why not? Gun manufacturer Daniel Defense tried to buy airtime during the 2014 Super Bowl, but their ad was rejected. The league does allow ads for “stores that sell firearms and ammunitions [e.g., outdoor stores and camping stores] … provided [that] the ads do not mention firearms, ammunition or other weapons.”
But I’ve seen those Duck Dynasty ads. While ESPN, NBC and FOX won’t air gun ads, Benelli (a firearm manufacturer) often advertises on the Outdoor Channel — with ads featuring the backwoods Duck Dynasty gang, which is definitely an example of knowing your key demographic.
Why not? For this year’s Super Bowl, the NFL won’t allow sponsorship with “gambling-related advertising — including advertising for any hotel, casino or other establishment that [specializes in] gambling.” You can’t even infer gambling: “…regardless of whether the advertising references gambling.”
What’s football without fantasy football? Despite numerous ads throughout the NFL season, it’s still TBD whether recently-scandalized DraftKings and FanDuel (both daily fantasy sports sites) will purchase ads in the Super Bowl. Neither has yet to buy a spot for 2016, but even 2107 seems unlikely: This past November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman classified both companies as illegal online gambling — blocking the companies from doing business in his state. (Prosecutors in Hawaii and Illinois are also pushing back against the companies now.)
But isn’t betting on the Super Bowl, like, a national pastime? Of course. And no one is saying you still can’t put a little money down on the game — either in Vegas or in an office pool. You just can’t see a commercial about betting on the game while you’re, er, betting on the game.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.