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Generation Y
Generation X

Super Bowl Ads Try to Woo Millennials

The sports fans will talk about the game, the music fans will talk about the halftime show, and the foodies will talk about the food they ate during the game. But we at XYZ University look at an event like Super Bowl 50 from an entirely different point of view — the generational one.

The sports fans will talk about the game, the music fans will talk about the halftime show, and the foodies will talk about the food they ate during the game. 

But we at XYZ University look at an event like Super Bowl 50 from an entirely different point of view — the generational one.

The Super Bowl has become far more than just another sporting content — it’s a social and cultural event that eclipses almost anything else. While more than 100 million people tuned into the big game, XYZ University tuned into the trends and marketing, and the shift was palpable. It was obvious, even though this was the 50th anniversary celebration of the Super Bowl, that one era has ended, and a new one has begun.

Out of 63 product ads we viewed during Super Bowl 50, only two were tailored towards Baby Boomers, six were focused on Generation X, and all the remaining were focused on Gen Y/Millennials.

This is especially interesting considering that while Super Bowl ratings have soared in the past decade, Nielsen reports the number of viewers within the 18-49 year old audience has remained relatively flat since 2011.

In other words, companies are desperate to reach the Millennial audience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Millennials are tuning in.

Back to the game — as for the Boomers, Audi wooed them with an ad featuring Buzz Aldrich and music by David Bowie, while pulled in Sir Anthony Hopkins clad in blue slippers.

As for the Gen Xers, several ads used the music from hair bands that only a Xer could fully appreciate, such as Acura (Van Halen), Jeep (Queen), Taco Bell (Guns ‘N Roses), Skittles (Aerosmith), and Heinz (Badfinger).  And the Avocados from Mexico’s commercial targeted Xers with a Rubik’s Cube and Scott Baio appearance.

But the vast majority of advertising was geared towards Generation Y. The Millennials. The generation that became the majority of the workforce last year. The largest generation in history, turning between the ages of 21 and 34 this year.

Here were some of the themes we observed, and true to Super Bowl tradition, many of these ads are raising eyebrows and generating debate.


More Millennials are settling down and starting families, so babies were naturally one of the Super Bowl 50 themes. But take a quick look at Twitter and you’ll find that viewers felt most of the approaches were controversial, shocking, and even strange. These included the NFL’s Super Bowl Babies ads, the Doritos ad featuring a pregnant mother and her snack-craving baby, and Mountain Dew’s “Puppymonkeybaby” ad.


If there’s one thing we know about Gen Y/Millennials it’s that this generation loves a great experience. Intel reportedly worked for a year on its latest video campaign titled Experience Amazing.

According to the company’s VP of Global Creative, Intel wants to evolve its brand beyond the perception of being a chip manufacturer to being a company that creates “amazing human experiences.”

The VP was quoted in Advertising Age as follows: “Intel’s been part of these huge cultural experiences, and we as a company never talked about them or tried to get credit for them. But we have to let people know. Kids today don’t care about what’s inside — they care about what they get to do with it. That’s been the impetus for the whole campaign.”

Other adventure-themed ads included (“Change your apartment. Change the world.”), Michelob Ultra (“For those who go the extra mile.”), FitBit (“Get fit in style.”), Pokemon (“I can do that”), plus Butterfinger (“Butterfinger is Bold!”).

And we can’t forget the Toyota Prius commercials, in which four guys rob a bank and get away with it — surprisingly fast — in a Prius. Insert more controversy here.

Public Service

It’s no secret Millennials are drawn to volunteering and service to others. This generation volunteers more of their time to community causes than other generations and donates annually to nonprofit organizations. More than 85% of consumers in this age category prefer to purchase a product that’s committed to a cause.

So Colgate hit it out of the park with the ad, Every Drop Counts. The ad encourages people to turn the faucet off while brushing their teeth. The ad notes that brushing with the faucet running wastes 4 gallons of water, which is more water than many people in the world have in a week.

We at XYZ University were surprised that more advertisers didn’t follow suit. The Colgate ad was the only one to hone in on this generation’s passion for causes.


From web sites to razors, many Super Bowl 50 ads took the futuristic approach.

Liam Neeson starred in LG’s first ever Super Bowl commercial, which was more like a trailer for a new action movie than an advertisement. In the ad, Neeson approaches a young man (who is actually his 20-year-old son) and relays an important message about the future which “must be protected.”

This was one of several ads with messages about the future and change, such as Arrow Electronics (“Forever Forward”), Kia (“Next Gen”), Xfinity (“Change the way you experience TV”), Quicken Loans (“Push button. Get mortgage.”), PayPal (“Old money is stuck in the past. There’s a new money in town.”), and CBS’ commercial about streaming television (“Then. Now. All Ways”.)

Furthermore, the NFL has introduced Next Gen Stats, which were popping up throughout the big game. Next Gen Stats capture real time location data, speed and acceleration for every player, every play, on every square inch of the field. On the NFL web site, the organization explains that these stats were introduced because “The future is now.”

As Super Bowl 50 draws to a close, one can’t help but think what the next 50 years will bring to the NFL and to future generations. It’s pretty amazing to discover that Astronaut Scott Kelly watched Super Bowl 50 from the International Space Station. Now the question becomes, where will football go next — and who will be watching?

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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