Super Bowl ads eschew playing it safe and go for political blitz instead

Super Bowl ads most years are as big as the big game itself. But this year's slot of product pitches stood out for taking a political stance against the backdrop of an American political climate that's as divided as it's been in recent memory.

84 Lumber and others make waves for decidedly political tone

Pennsylvanian lumber company 84 Lumber certainly got attention for its immigrant-themed Super Bowl ad. (CBC)

Super Bowl ads most years are as big as the big game itself. But this year's slot of product pitches stood out for taking a political stance against the backdrop of an American political climate that's as divided as it's been in recent memory.

Brewer Anheuser-Busch usually makes a splash with its annual ad, and this year was no exception, with the Bud ad touting its founder's immigrant story. The spot made waves when it was released last week for seemingly taking a stance on the current immigration debate.

It's rare for a large brand like Anheuser-Busch to take such a stance, since "Budweiser is not a polarizing brand in theory," author and speaker Scott Stratten, president of Unmarketing said in a recent interview with CBC News.

That's because "they are not a brand that takes a side or a stand for things," but may have accidentally waded into one here — even though the spot was likely conceived of and executed months ago.

While the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity rings true, that may not be the case for Bud in this case as a movement to boycott the brand has already started on social media under the #BoycottBudweiser hashtag.

Anheuser-Busch is just one of many brands caught up in a boycotting brouhaha as the political backdrop has forced companies to pick a side. 

"Brands used to worry about whether their ad could be interpreted as right or wrong," said Kelly O'Keefe, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Now they have to worry about whether it will be interpreted as right or left."

Airbnb seemed unafraid to wade into the political realm in its spot, depicting a variety of faces from different races and the tagline "we accept."

The company went out on a bit of a limb for taking a clear stance on an issue while bringing limited mention to their actual core business of linking homeowners with extra space to temporary tenants looking to use it.

Unlike Bud, which claims the content of the ad was a coincidence, Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky confirmed that his company's ad was very much intentional, and the company called an audible just by even having an ad, since the time slot was only purchased as recently as Thursday.

Some thought the ad was a hit. "Kudos to them for making a strong statement," said O'Keefe.

But others, such as Villanova University marketing professor Charles Taylor, thought it didn't have a clear enough link to the brand and risked coming off as a "purely political statement."

Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, thinks Airbnb struck just the right tone for its audience. "Airbnb isn't going to worry about the negatives so much because their target group is young, mobile, open and they can be very much turned on by that sort of endorsement."

Coca-Cola dipped into its own history for its ad this year, re-airing during the pre-game show a spot first aired in 2014 in which America the beautiful is sung in eight different languages, against a backdrop of smiling faces of a multitude of races.

While not an overtly political ad since it was identical to the one aired three years ago, it was nonetheless a telling decision in the current political climate.

But perhaps no ad has drawn as much attention for its political tone as a lengthy one for a heretofore unknown Pennsylvanian lumber company called 84 Lumber.

The ad makes direct reference to the current debate over a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which the new president famously and repeatedly insists that Mexico will pay for.

The ad depicts a mother and her daughter walking across vast expanses of harsh landscape, headed for America. When they get near the border, they are confronted with a massive wall, which the viewer has seen earlier in the ad was built with steel and lumber.

Crestfallen, the mother seems about to give up hope, until they notice a door in the wall nearby. And they push through and enter America, the ad's tagline reads "the will to succeed is always welcome here."

The ad was deemed to be so controversial that broadcaster Fox refused to air the ending, when the duo discover the wall. But the company directed viewers to its own website to watch the finale after seeing the 90-second spot during the game.

While the ad clearly achieved its aim of raising awareness for the company, there seems to be some confusion as to whether the company has come out against or in favour of the idea of the wall.

Many took issue with the notion that the company was somehow in favour of the idea of illegal immigration

But in its own social media postings, the company reveals its intent was merely to voice its support of those who come to the country legally.

Advertisers are usually extra careful to make sure their big-money ads don't tread on a topic that may backfire against the backdrop of an "emboldened, enraged or traumatized audience," said Mark DiMassimo, CEO of ad agency DiMassimo Goldstein.

While Budweiser, Airbnb, 84 Lumber and others may prove to have pulled it off, themes such as patriotism that may have seemed innocuous in the past are now dangerous because "anxiety and politics just loom over this game," he said.

But Middleton says causing a stir is the name of the advertising game — no matter what. 

"If you are paying that much money for a 30-second commercial, you want a bit of notoriety," he said.

With files from The Associated Press


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