FCC Complaints Show Not All Super Bowl Ads Went Over Well With Audience

Zach Brooke
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Key Takeaways
​​What? Some people took exception to the content of some of the ads played during Super Bowl LI.

So what? Their reaction was strong enough they submitted complaints to the FCC, which is tasked with penalizing profane or indecent content.

Now what? Brands need to take risks to turn heads during the Super Bowl. While no ad is likely to please everyone, it's important to know exactly how targets will respond to provocative spots in order to avoid a major misstep.  

Feb. 13, 2017

T-Mobile’s kinky Kristen Schaal spots were among those flagged by viewers 

Brands and football fans had plenty of reason celebrate the Super Bowl LI on Sunday, Feb. 5. The thrilling come-from-behind win by the New England Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons has been called the greatest in history, and ratings for the big game placed it among the top five most-watched Super Bowls of all time. According to Nielsen, 70% of all U.S. households watched the NFL championship, and broadcaster Fox released data showing a total audience of 172 million .    

All that exposure can only be good for advertisers, right? Not exactly. Some viewers were none too happy about the content of specific commercials, and they let the FCC know it. The agency regulates all interstate communications, including television broadcasts, and takes action against parties found to violate obscenity, indecency and profanity as outlined in the United States Code. According to records obtained by Marketing News, the broadcast generated 62 separate complaints.

Advertisers can rest easy knowing the largest amount of complaints had nothing to do with them, but rather, with a string of f-bombs dropped by players and Lombardi Trophy presenter Willie McGinest following the Patriots overtime victory.

That being said, some commercials did offend the sensibilities of individual viewers. Yet, despite the number of politically charged ads, it wasn’t the views expressed in any of the advertisements that commenters to exception with. Ads that did draw viewer ire incorporated the always risqué topics of sex and profanity. 

A typical reaction was one evidenced in a letter by a resident of Woodstock, Georgia, who didn’t single out a specific commercial in general, but expressed general disgust at most ads. 

“I am appalled at the amount of times I've had to cover my daughter's eyes during the Super Bowl commercials!! Why would these be on display repeatedly during what should be considered a family affair?!?”

T-Mobile had the dubious distinction of being the most-reported brand. The cell phone carrier ran no fewer than four different spots over the course of the big game, and shockingly, in wasn’t the one featuring Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg coyly making pot references that raised viewers’ hackles. Instead, it was a pair “50 Shades of Grey”-eques spots that starred Kristen Schaal as someone who enjoys being punished by data overages and extra phone charges.  

Adweek named the spot one the big game’s five best, saying, “the phone spot, by agency Laundry Service, was the better of the two, with Schaal perfectly icky as she chats up the service rep.”


One viewer from Jupiter, Florida, saw things differently though, saying the ad surpassed the indecency of Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004.

“I think the T-Mobile super bowl [sic] commercials are extremely inappropriate for young audiences due to the sado-masochism innuendos. This is much worse than Janet Jackson's accidental exposure!! I'm just glad it's a school night and my children went to bed since I live on the East coast,” 

Another viewer from Bethany, Oklahoma, complained a T-Mobile ad featured a “sex dungeon,” although the brand can rest easy, since he or she thought it was an ad for competitor Verizon.


Another wrote,

“T-Mobile had several ads played throughout the Superbowl [sic] that were highly indecent with overt sexual overtones and use of S&M ideas (a whip, etc.). These ads were played during prime time when my small children, as well as other children in families all over the country, were watching. Had these ads been played during late night, or on cable, I could understand somewhat. These ads were played on regular broadcast television during prime viewing.”

And another viewer from Burbank, California, complained the spot minimized real-world harassment of call center employees, writing,

“I am frankly disgusted by this commercial that was aired during the Super Bowl by T-Mobile. As a V.P. of Customer Care, I manage a large call center and have experienced this firsthand over the years with men calling our 800# and having un-wanted sexual conversations with our female Customer Care Representatives. […] T-Mobile would never have aired a commercial were the tables turned (a man calling in and speaking this way to a female employee), and I am appalled by the double standard. It is a sad commentary about our society that some find this amusing and that the network felt that this ad was appropriate to air.”

Still, another response went beyond the commercials and took issue with the hashtag associated with the campaign.

“T-Mobile aired two indecent sexual commercials during the Super Bowl. This is supposed to be a family event. The kids already have to leave during the sexually charged halftime show and now they have to leave for the commercials. Families all over the country now have to explain BDSM to their kids and how their new campaign of #TheSafeWordIsUnlimited is appropriate.”

What that viewer might not know, is that they had some company, if for different reasons. Requests for comment from T-Mobile were not answered by press time.

T-Mobile’s hashtag was not the only social media marker. The same viewer who complained about their spot being a “sex dungeon,” also tut-tutted #Giveadamn, a mild oath invoked by Budweiser to raise awareness against drunk driving. 

“I don't appreciate trying to watch the Superbowl [sic] with my family and having commercials like Budweiser saying #giveadamn,” the viewer wrote. 

Finally, two viewers took issue with a number of trailers for shows and movies displayed during the broadcast. One woman from Verona, Virginia, found several to be too graphic and/or vulgar for prime time television, writing,

“As a new mother and a teacher I am highly concerned with the content of commercials during day/evening hours, when young children will be watching, prior to 8pm. Specifically, FOX commericals [sic] and trailers during Football games and even during the Super Bowl. The violent and sexual content for promo trailers of their television shows 24 and Empire, amongst others, is far too explicit for any viewer under the age of 14. Rated R movies should also not have explicit trailers for promos during any foot ball [sic] games or hours prior to 8pm. Please consider cleaning up our day time television, especially during sports events.”

Another was floored by what was presumably Scarlett Johansson in a spot for Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell.” 


“I and my family were shocked when one of the first tv ads during the Super Bowl was a woman dropping her clothes and appearing naked in front of us. It turns out she had a nude colored body suite on, but it still produced the same effect. I expected better of the FCC or whoever approves the ads for family viewing. I’m sure the movie producers are happy, but my family is sickened. I can’t take that image out of my kids’ heads or my head and it truly makes me sick,” they wrote.

View additional FCC complaints below: 

"Lady Gaga is an anagram of sharia law." 

Date: 2/5/2017 9:25:54 PM
City/State/Zip: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15202

"Just after the end of the Super Bowl on 2/5/2017, just after Tom Brady hugged the coach, another player wearing #29 came up to Tom Brady and said "You're the f---ing greatest. You're, the f--ing greatest, man." The mic was still live and the audio was intelligible in spite of the background noise of the crowd."

Date: 2/5/2017 10:21:19 PM

City/State/Zip: Woodstock, Georgia 30188

"Sheetz commercial during Super Bowl was particularly loud."

Date: 2/5/2017 10:24:25 PM

City/State/Zip: Mineral Point, Pennsylvania 15942

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Author Bio:

Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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