By Lisa Richwine
(Reuters) - After politics seeped onto the football field during the regular season, Super Bowl advertisers are opting to stay far away from anything divisive when they pitch to the year's biggest television audience on Sunday.
Makers of cars, snacks and electronics are favoring heart-warming and humorous approaches to grab viewers' attention during the U.S. football championship between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
Pepsi Co brands Doritos and Mountain Dew, for example, staged a lip-sync rap battle between actors Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman in a teaser released online. Amazon.com Inc's Alexa assistant lost her voice in the company's preview of its Super Bowl ad.
Advertisers are likely to stick with proven strategies, such as comedy or positive emotions rather than controversies such as athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, marketing experts said.
"My strong prediction is you will see a lot more safe ads," said Derek Rucker, marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, which runs an annual review of Super Bowl commercials.
Ratings for National Football League games dropped nearly 10 percent during the regular season. Media experts said protests over racial inequality drove some viewers away. TV broadcasters showed players kneeling or locking arms during pre-game presentations of "The Star-Spangled Banner," prompting President Donald Trump to call them unpatriotic.
Super Bowl advertisers are likely to avoid the topic altogether, said Charles R. Taylor, marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business. His research has found that 49 percent of Super Bowl commercials during the past decade used humor, which he expects to continue.
"The country is just so divided that, for a mass marketer, I think it's really a mistake to make any type of political statement," Taylor said. "In the long run, you don't make up for the people you alienate."
Last year, a handful of spots hit on topics such as immigration and diversity but took measured tones aimed at appealing to a broad range of viewers, Taylor said.
For this year's game, veterans organization Amvets tried to place a one-page advertisement with the message "#PleaseStand" in the Super Bowl program. The NFL rejected the ad and said the program was not a place for anything that could be viewed as a political statement.
The game program will include a Veterans of Foreign Wars ad that supports veterans, and the league will celebrate the military at the game, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN Radio on Tuesday.
On television, advertisers cannot afford any missteps. Broadcaster NBC, a unit of Comcast Corp, charged an average of $5 million-plus for a 30-second spot. More than 100 million viewers are expected to watch the contest.
This year, more brands are holding back their ads to preserve the element of surprise rather than posting them online in advance of game day.
Some that have revealed their strategies are tying their products to social missions, an approach that appeals to millennials, Taylor said.
In one case, actor Matt Damon tells viewers that Anheuser Busch Inbev label Stella Artois is donating funds to bring clean water to Africa. Carmaker Hyundai plans a 60-second commercial that recognizes people fighting pediatric cancers and spotlights the company's nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause.
Some brands may opt for a dark or political theme to try to stand out from the roughly 50 ads that run during the game, Rucker said.
"If there are a couple that break that trend, they will get more attention," Rucker said. "The question will be will they navigate it properly, or will they be the source of ridicule?"
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Susan Thomas)