A More Socially-Responsible Super Bowl

02/10/2016 04:06 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2017

When the price of a 30-second spot on CBS's broadcast of the 50th Super Bowl costs $5 million, you'd think advertisers would use every micro-second of that spot to sell product. In last Sunday's Super Bowl they did, but not necessarily in the conventional way. First-time advertiser, Colgate toothpaste stood out in this year's pigskin fest among a mostly tepid array of ads with animals, celebrities in strange situations, and half-baked attempts at humor. Colgate's spot, "Save Water" showed us how running water while brushing our teeth wastes up to four gallons of water -- more than most people in the world have for an entire week. It also spawned a social awareness campaign and personal pledge about our responsibility to conserve water, #EveryDropCounts.

Colgate 2016 Super Bowl Ad: "Save Water"
Credit: Colgate

Why would Colgate-Palmolive use one of the last remaining mass audience platforms -- reaching 100 million viewers -- to deliver a message about protecting the environment? Because clean water is a finite resource and we squander it mindlessly. And, because Colgate understands their audiences. They understand that demonstrating their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and appealing to our better selves is smart business. Corporate America can espouse a symbiotic double bottom line -- to make money and make the world a better place. With audiences being more socially-conscious than ever and demonstrating loyalty to brands that conduct fair trade, advance sustainability, and produce products that embody those philosophies, attending to both bottom lines is critical to the future.

These dual impulses aren't mutually exclusive. Nor are they new. When I helped open new resorts for Marriott's Hotels & Resorts throughout the Caribbean and Hawaii, I could still care about our impact on the ocean and coral reefs. When I launching new flavors and products for Brigham's Ice cream, I could also launch "KidSpeak" a program by and for kids, whose first effort was to collect books for the child victims of Apartheid in South Africa. My work in social responsibility and cause marketing in the early '90s was inspired by the consumer goods corporate grandparents of CSR from the '70s and '80s, Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks, and Stonyfield yogurt. Many of the current CSR leaders are tech giants, including Microsoft, Google, and Apple. (Though there are many modern consumer brand models like Panera Bread, Legos, and Tom's of Maine).

Colgate wasn't alone in social messaging during Super Bowl 50. In addition to the requisite Clydesdales, Budweiser aired an anti-drunken-driving social message spot. Standout British actress, Helen Mirren, tersely and sarcastically admonished viewers who drink and drive in #GiveaDamn. Both Colgate and Budweiser paid full freight for these spots, proving the intersection of meaning and money can achieve both financial and social impact success for socially-conscious companies and brands.

And in a clever anti-sexual and domestic violence spot "Text Talk," the No More advocacy group educated audiences on how to recognize the signs of domestic violence through a back-and-forth text exchange between two friends. The NFL donated the airtime for this public service announcement (PSA), a wise messaging choice for a sport that's been riddled with violence against women.

Finally, Beyonce's half-time performance was a carefully orchestrated communication, both as the world debut of the brand new song, "Formation" and as a highly visible forum to deliver a social message. The all female performers were dressed in black berets like Black Panther activists and formed an "X" in the middle of the field, giving a nod to Malcolm X. The Super Bowl performance and Beyonce's video of the single (with graffiti saying "stop shooting us") is the latest salvo in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is taking cities and college campuses by storm. The media platform of music and the Super Bowl's world stage has given a new voice to the movement.

The power of media is incalculable. Nothing raises awareness or creates deeper understanding of an issue or a cause than storytelling through media. Archimedes said, "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world." Media can be that place to stand. It can have a higher purpose. Since the first cave drawing or moving frame, media has had the power to influence and transform society. Media has affected Americans' perception of truth and justice -- from biting episodes about equality in All in the Family in the '70s to the harsh realities of the "live" Gulf War in the '90s to the sensitive presentation of gender identity in The Danish Girl this past year.

To all the world's companies and storytellers, don't stop exploring new ways to use the power of media -- from film and videogames to ads and songs -- to fuel social change.

Anne Zeiser is a critically acclaimed transmedia and social impact producer and media strategist. She's stewarded films and iconic TV series for PBS, produced news for CBS, managed national brands for marketing firms, and founded Azure Media, which develops transmedia projects on air, online, and on the go that fuel social impact in communities, in schools, and in capitals. Zeiser is the author of the new book, Transmedia Marketing: From Film and TV to Games and Digital Media from Focal Press' American Film Market® Presents book series, which explores using media for social change in the chapter,"Media-fueled Social Impact."