Watching (Out for) Those Super Bowl Commercials

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Listen, I like the Muppets as much as anybody, and I’ll celebrate most any appearance of Super Grover.

Except, maybe, in a Super Bowl advertisement.

Super Grover, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the rest of the Sesame Street gang appeared in one of the most popular Super Bowl commercials yesterday—an ad for DoorDash—alongside Broadway/television/movie star Daveed Diggs. (CNN ranked it the best ad of the night; USA Today’s annual AdMeter pegged it at No. 11.) Diggs and the Muppets were encouraging viewers to use DoorDash to get food “from the people in your neighborhood,” co-opting one of Sesame Street’s most popular ditties. DoorDash suggested it’d not only be good for said neighborhood people (and DoorDash itself, of course), but it’d help Sesame Street, too. For every order, delivery service promised to donate a dollar to the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind the popular children’s show.

All that’s well and good, I suppose. But I was still a little sad to see Sesame Street’s Muppets take such a commercial turn.

Granted, it’s not shocking to see Muppets advertising stuff. Many have always been strictly for-profit puppets. As early as the 1980s, the Muppets were pitching Polaroid cameras. Muppets creator Jim Henson happily did advertisements early in his career, and in the 1960s—before Sesame Street was even a gleam in the eye of PBS—Ernie (of Bert and Ernie fame) was (according to brandchannel.com) helping to sell something called Linit. 

But then Ernie became a regular on Sesame Street, which for much of its history was as idealistic a kids’ TV show you could find: In a sea of kids’ television programming that than keep young viewers docile for 30 minutes and hock breakfast cereal, Sesame Street (and some of PBS’ other shows) were meant to teach kids something. Oh, and being that they were on PBS, so there were no commercials—equally important for many of the show’s creators. Each episode was “brought to you by” a couple of letters from the alphabet and a number, too—a little tweak of all the literally more commercialized children’s shows out there.

Sesame Street moved to HBO back in 2015, so this next step is perhaps not that surprising. Still, seeing Sesame Street Muppets on an ad feels a little like … selling out? Given DoorDash’s donation, it seems that the Muppets came for a pretty penny.

It’s worth noting, too, that many experts believe that children are especially vulnerable to the influence of advertisements—and that’s particularly true if those ads include characters that kids already know, trust and like. Granted, not a lot of toddlers will be calling up DoorDash soon. But might they be prone to beg Mom and Dad to buy some of those yummy cookies that Cookie Monster was gobbling? Or have a near-subconscious affinity to use DoorDash over other similar services as they age? I think so. While the company may have intended the commercials to primarily spark a wave of nostalgia in older viewers, the influence Sesame Street characters might have on younger viewers can’t have passed unnoticed by the ad’s creators. The Super Bowl, after all, is perhaps the best time to bring whole families together to watch something.

But it seems that, even during the Super Bowl, moms and dads can’t watch uncritically—or without an eye toward how the content is impacting their children.

Another rather dispiriting commercial? Will Ferrell’s otherwise hilarious “No Way Norway” ad, which did more than just market General Motors’ electric-powered vehicles. It also polluted the airwaves with two profanities.

There’s a reason Plugged In notes whether something has profanities in pretty much every review we write: Some parents don’t want their kids exposed to that sort of language. Our reviews are designed to put power into the hands of moms and dads, so that they can decide for themselves whether foul language (or violence or sexual content or what-have-you) in a given movie or show or song is navigable or not. We don’t tell parents what to do, but we do want to give them a heads up.

But with ads? On the most-watched television offering of the year? “No Way Norway” foisted language on literally millions of unsuspecting families—many of whom surely didn’t care to have their 6-year-olds hearing someone say “d–mit.” Instead of proactively screening content, moms and dads were forced to react, instead. And that’s never a great position for parents to be in.

In our ever-coarsening, commercialized culture, few advertisers seem to care much about these issues. But as for me, I can do without Will Ferrell swearing at me and my family without my tacit permission. And I hope that I don’t see Super Grover hocking light beer next.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

7 Responses

  1. – Thank you for your reviews. I am a mother of a 2 and 4 year old. We have noticed a significant increase in inappropriate ads on TV. I haven’t seen you write about this but how about the unsuspecting ads for HORROR movies on children’s movies and TV? This has happened to us at least twice. I was mortified and couldn’t get to the remote in time! Or the way that homosexuality is being normalized in nearly EVERY commercial? It’s frustrating as someone who is trying to parent intentionally. I realize it’s out there and my children will eventually be exposed but was hoping I could hold them off for as long as I can.

  2. – I’ve never liked football and the only reason I even watch the super bowl is for the halftime show, but recently I haven’t even seen that since the last time the show had someone I liked in it was when Coldplay featured Bruno Mars. But even if I watched that commercial, which I didn’t since the stupid weekend was playing, I honestly wouldn’t have cared if the D word was spoken. The S F or GD words are the only true cuss words that tend to ruffle my feathers.

  3. – I’m sorry, I usually love your content, but this article is just too much. I think that you’re over analyzing this time

  4. -Our grandchildren do not watch any commercial television. When we were watching a children’s Christmas special with them via video, a comercial came on and one of them ran out to get daddy to tell him, “the TV is broken, the show is not on anymore!”. It’s the first time in their lives (8 and 5) they had ever seen an ad on TV!

  5. -My young daughters (almost 4 and almost 2) watched the first 15 minutes or so of the Super Bowl with me because they were eating dinner while constrained in high chairs and had no choice. 🙂 They loved seeing some beloved Sesame Street characters pop up on the screen, even if just for a minute. My almost-2yo sadly repeated “Elmo” over and over again after the commercial, having missed seeing him included, I suppose.
    But then, that funny Will Ferrell commercial played. The girls were enraptured with its funny-sounding dialogue and captivating scene changes. When the first d-word was uttered, I saw my nearly-4yo’s mind start turning. I hoped she’d let it go… but nope, she heard it again! By then, I knew what was coming as she looked at me with her eyes expressing some pretty deep thinking. I stopped the inevitable by telling her how that word was not a nice word, and it made Jesus sad.
    She looked at me in innocent questioning and said the word.
    I more firmly instructed her it wasn’t a nice word and cautioned her not to say it.
    She responded, “I just said d___t.”
    I told her I heard her the first time, and that’s exactly what I was telling her not to say. We should not say that.
    She quickly replied, “But THAT man said it.”
    “Well, he must not be a very good man.”

    Thankfully, I assume she’s forgotten that word by now. In fact, if she were to try to say it again, I doubt she’d remember it correctly. Believe me, though, if she’s in the room when it comes on again, I’m muting it! One more viewing of that commercial would likely solidify the memory and correct pronunciation for her.

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