Are these two Super Bowl ads really good for sustainability?

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Matt Damon stars in Stella Artois' 30-second, water conservation-themed Super Bowl ad.

Question: What does this triumvirate — Clydesdale horses, the Bud Bowl and recent catastrophic extreme weather events — have in common?

Answer: They are each a theme of Budweiser Super Bowl ads, past and immediate future. If there were a Super Bowl Advertising Hall of Fame, the brand's ads featuring the iconic, white-maned horses and the fun, computer-generated football games played by teams of beer bottles (Bud vs. Bud Light!) both certainly would be first ballot inductees.

But corporate parent AB InBev’s stablemates Budweiser and Stella Artois are going in a different direction for Sunday's broadcast of Super Bowl LII on NBC.

In "Budweiser’s Super Bowl Beer Ad Isn’t about Beer," which ran in the Jan. 26 issue of Environmental Leader, Jennifer Hermes reported that the brand's 60-second Super Bowl spot is actually about water:

[U.S. corporate parent] Anheuser-Busch currently produces canned drinking water at its Cartersville, Georgia, brewery and ships them to communities in need. This year, the company shipped nearly 3 million cans of emergency drinking water to areas hit by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and by the California wildfires. In total, the company says it has provided over 79 million cans of drinking water to communities in need. The Super Bowl ad tells the story of its employees in the Cartersville plant who produce the emergency drinking water. [It] features the general manager of the brewery, along with more than 20 of his local colleagues.

Stella Artois' 30-second ad, produced in partnership with water.org, features actor and Patriots fan Matt Damon, who calls on beer lovers to step up to help solve the water crisis by buying a Stella beer chalice. Damon asserts that if just 1 percent of Super Bowl viewers purchase the glass, Stella will provide "clean water to 1 million people. For five years."

Why did Budweiser and Stella take this turn? It comes down to water — and eyeballs.

Quality water is, of course, crucial to the beer brewing process. AB InBev and its U.S. subsidiary Anheuser-Busch has implemented a robust water stewardship and environmental protection program across its sprawling brewery roster.

The initiative has engaged employees, farmers, suppliers and strategic partners to devise and implement a wide range of water conservation and management measures. Anheuser-Busch says this approach helped it reduce water use across all of its U.S. breweries by nearly 50 percent over the last 10 years.

That is a big achievement that warrants the big ad spend (NBC Sports is charging $5 million for a 30-second spot) on the "Big Game" to reach the biggest television audience of the year (111 million people watched the 2017 Super Bowl). 

Reaching such a vast audience with environmentally themed messaging is why I believe Bud and Stella Artois have co-authored the most important green story surrounding Super Bowl LII.

Oh, you might say, "I think the fact that the National Football League (NFL), the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee and U.S. Bank Stadium are teaming up to offset 100 percent of the game’s carbon footprint via the purchase of renewable energy credits is more consequential than a couple of ads."

Or, you might opine, "Rush2Recycle, the program sponsored by PepsiCo, and promoted by ex-NFL great Hines Ward, that will help Sunday’s game be the first zero-waste Super Bowl, has to be considered the most important green story."

While those efforts are, of course, laudable, I still go with Bud and Stella.

Because the audience of more than 100 million people who might see the Bud and Stella Artois water-themed ads on NBC likely will be between 50 to 100 times greater than the number of people who learn about the sustainability aspects of Super Bowl LII.

That audience includes the more than 66,000 fans inside U.S. Bank Stadium, along with readers of national media outlets such as Fast Company magazine, which are giving the zero-waste Super Bowl story welcome coverage.

Now, the NFL can easily wrest the "most important green story of Super Bowl LII" title away from Bud and Stella. All it needs to do is to create a public service announcement touting the green aspects of Super Bowl LII — as of this writing (three days away from the game), there is plenty of time for great content to be produced — and air it on NBC during the game. But will the NFL step up?

The stakes, said Allen Hershkowitz, founder and former president of the Green Sports Alliance and a founding director of Sport and Sustainability International, are much higher than even the Super Bowl itself.

"As one of the most visible sporting events in the world, the Super Bowl has a unique opportunity to promote environmental literacy and reduce cultural polarization related to climate change," said Hershkowitz. "U.S. Bank Stadium’s commitment to 100 percent renewable energy credits, ambitious zero-waste goals and the [Minneapolis] region’s intelligent mass transit infrastructure, positions this event to be among the most carbon intelligent Super Bowls ever.

"The question before us is this: Will the NFL meaningfully promote this aspect of the Super Bowl story? Given the bewildering retreat from essential, science-based climate policy being enacted by the worst environmental administration in our nation’s history, a counter message by the NFL promoting progress on climate could not be more important. It has a responsibility to the world to do so."

Environmental messaging: A winner for the NFL

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talks a good environmental game: "The NFL is a responsible steward of the environment in all areas of our business. Through [zero-waste and offset projects], the League and its partners hope to set a new standard of environmental sustainability at the Super Bowl."

But Goodell’s green talk mainly takes place in dry, easily ignorable press releases, not on Super Bowl broadcasts.

The Commish and league should go beyond press releases and talk the green talk to the widest possible audience during the Super Bowl because doing so likely would be good for business. Say what?

Hasn’t this been a tough season for the NFL, from the CTE plaguing injured players to declining TV ratings, from anthem protests to "Fire the Sons of B**ches!"? Won't many older fans get ticked off? Isn't it better for a league whose ownership and fan base is seen as right-of-center to keep quiet about the environment and climate? No, it is not. And, again, I say this from a business building, not from the "it’s the right thing to do" point of view.

A 2016 conversation with an NFL marketing executive, who preferred to remain anonymous, sticks with me. He said the one thing that kept him and his colleagues up at night the most was how to attract millennial and Generation Z fans and keep them.

One thing that resonates with younger cohorts is the environment and climate: Across the political spectrum, the 35-and-under set accepts the reality and seriousness of climate change at rates far greater than their older counterparts.

Will embracing climate and the environment be the main catalyst to turning the tide the NFL's young fan problems? Of course not. This is a complex, multi-factorial problem and going big on the environment is, admittedly, not close to the most important potential solution.

But, it says here that an intelligent, clever environmentally themed public service announcement will be well-received among millennials and Gen-Zers. 

Budweiser and Stella Artois — hardly fringe, left-wing brands — believe that leading with the environment is the right way to go. Will the NFL join them by airing a green PSA on Sunday? I wouldn’t bet on it.

In the meantime, buy a Stella chalice and (responsibly) enjoy a Stella or a Bud on Super Sunday.

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