Here’s a sprinkling of the last 20 years of Super Bowl halftime shows. See if you can spot where the change happens. Aerosmith/Britney Spears (2001), U2 (2002), Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake (2004), Paul McCartney (2005), Bruce Springsteen (2009), The Who (2010), The Black Eyed Peas/Usher/Slash (2011), Madonna/LMFAO/Nicki Minaj (2012), Katy Perry/Lenny Kravitz/Missy Elliott (2015), Coldplay/Beyoncé/Bruno Mars (2016) and Maroon 5/Travis Scott/Big Boi (2019).
Did you see it? Following the infamous “nip-slip” with Jackson and Timberlake in 2004, the acts chosen by the NFL are generally older, more rock ‘n’ roll-centric, and “safer” for the NFL brand.
Why are these acts safer? For that, you need to look at the NFL’s target audience demographics. 74 percent of men in the U.S. say they watch the NFL; with women coming in at 56 percent.
Of viewers ages 25-34, 69 percent watch the NFL. Of viewers ages 35-44, 67 percent watch. The most coveted demographics by advertisers are 21-49 year-old males, and the Super Bowl is the flame that attracts those viewers.
So, as the NFL, what do you not want to do in the middle of your biggest game?
Definitely not send viewers away with an act they disagree with. Or worse: have them not watch in the first place because they don’t prefer the performer.
So, in order to keep that audience engaged and happy, the NFL has rolled out musicians that keep everyone on their couches for $5.25 million 30 second commercials. Also, each artist feels like a bigger draw five years earlier. Lady Gaga in 2017 is good; but Lady Gaga in 2012 would have pulled in more viewers in non-targeted demographics. However, it may have alienated the core viewer base.
Now, there are a few “outliers” in this pattern: The Black Eyed Peas, Bruno Mars, and Travis Scott. However, at the time of their performances, these artists were noted for their fun, detached party music. They appealed to the public because they did what Paul McCartney did during his Super Bowl performance: they did not bother or offend anyone. The major outlier would be Beyoncé, who drew outrage when she referenced the Black Panther Party in her performance.
The NFL has made more conservative choices for the halftime show because they don’t want to risk fiscal repercussions.
There is an irony in all of this: the more we study football, the more dangerous we know the sport is, the more we watch football, the more protected the halftime show gets.
Every time a cookie-cutter artist is chosen because their performance won’t upset the league, the advertisers or the fans (in that order of priority), I’m left with a 30-minute demonstration of late-stage capitalism disguised as a friendly face. And I am over it.