Super Bowl Ads: Are Politics the New Sex?

At $5 million for 30 seconds, you better hope your Super Bowl ad generates buzz. Past campaigns have used humor, sex, cute animals and sentiment to capture attention. Some have consciously sought to generate controversy — usually involving sex (e.g., the old GoDaddy, Carl’s Jr.).

This year politics took the place of sex as the engine of controversy, though most ads still avoided it.

Before the game I was curious to see how many advertisers would “be political” and how many would completely avoid it. Political commentary from brands is seen as extremely risky, in this polarized climate especially But “safe” ads (read: boring) are problematic too.

Some of the ads therefore tip-toed into a kind of gray area, where if you were inclined to see a political message you might be able to find one.

This was the case with the Budweiser commercial about the founding of Anheuser Busch by German immigrants. Even thought it dramatized the truthful company origin story, it sparked a call to boycott Budweiser. One could argue the depiction of modest hostility to immigrants in the ad is a comment on the current political climate but it’s also historically accurate.

Coke recycled its 2014 multi-lingual, multi-cultural “America the Beautiful” ad. It was controversial then but much more controversial now, given the immigration ban. A message of inclusion, it was read as partisan in this environment. (Think about how Apple’s classic “1984” Super Bowl ad would look to many in the current climate.)

There were other ads, such as Audi’s “Daughter/Drive Progress” ad about gender equality, AirBnB’s “We Accept” campaign, Melissa McCarthy’s Kia ad that had a light pro-environmental theme and Avocados from Mexico was seen as political by some, though only if the simple mention of “Mexico” now is political. A few spots had subtle and no-so-subtle pro-gay messages.

However the ad that won the night from a “buzz” perspective was one that went directly after controversy. It was a pro-immigration spot taking aim at the border wall, from building-materials supplier 84 Lumber. (It didn’t seem cynically produced.)

An initial version of the ad was rejected by Fox as too controversial because it depicted the proposed border wall. The agency cut a new spot, which was approved.

At the end of the abridged TV ad, viewers were prompted to visit company’s website to see the “entire journey.” It sparked massive traffic to the company’s website. Whether these were sympathetic or critical viewers, it got the job done.

Below are the two versions of the ad:

I love Super Bowl ads and their creativity. But it’s generally true hat they’re a big waste of money. They typically don’t “work” to boost brand metrics or deliver actual sales. The 84 Lumber ad by comparison will probably do both.

The company and its agency took a huge risk by being political — that’s not going to work much of the time. However, millions more people now have an awareness of 84 Lumber (including me) and some of those people will go on to spend money there. Beyond this, the ad is getting huge secondary coverage because of its controversial content and the initial Fox rejection.

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