Even in a Divided America, Super Bowl Advertisers Seemed to Double Down on Politics

Messages of diversity and acceptance spark praise and boycotts

84 Lumber was one of the Super Bowl's most directly political advertisers, though its 'wall' conclusion only ran online.
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Some may have hoped that Super Bowl LI would provide a respite from a period of deep political division in America. But that was not the case on Sunday night.

Industry leaders like StrawberryFrog CEO Scott Goodson told Adweek that “lots of Americans were frustrated by the election” and simply wanted to be entertained, yet the Big Game’s most-discussed ads courted controversy with bold statements on immigration, equal pay and inclusiveness.

“Some brands like Wix did escapism,” said Kevin Jones, chief creative officer of Crispin Porter + Bogusky Los Angeles and veteran of seven Super Bowl campaigns. “But these are turbulent times, and I thought there would be more of that. I was kind of surprised, and actually a little impressed.”

Before the game even reached halftime, Coca-Cola and Airbnb had run spots focusing on diversity, with Coke’s ad (technically a pregame spot, and also a rebroadcast of the brand’s 2014 Super Bowl ad) prominently featuring a Muslim American woman in an hijab. Google also ran an ad including a gay pride flag, and Expedia ran its recent spot about global togetherness as a regional buy in several major markets.

In terms of generating buzz, this strategy appeared to work: Amobee Brand Intelligence found that Airbnb and Coke inspired more tweets than any other brand during the first quarter.

But the social and political messages certainly didn’t end there. Budweiser’s mini-biopic about immigrant founder Adolphus Busch had already generated an early wave of conservative backlash amid the national tug-of-war over Trump’s executive order barring immigration from several nations.

Pushback continued once the Budweiser ad officially aired, with variations of a #BoycottBudweiser hashtag (including, oddly enough, the misspelled #BoycottBudwiser) proving popular throughout the night.

Audi continued the conversation with its ad pushing equal pay for women, and retailer 84 Lumber sparked so much interest in its ad about Mexican immigrants that the brand’s site collapsed under the traffic as social media managers clarified on Facebook that the company does not support illegal immigration.

Hair care brand It’s a 10 went after President Trump even more directly, using its Super Bowl debut to snark about “Four years of bad hair.

Whether you saw such ads as a good thing, of course, likely depends on your political leanings going into the game. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, for example, was obviously a fan:

Breitbart, on the other hand, named 84 Lumber, Audi, Airbnb, It’s a 10 and Budweiser among the game’s “most politicized” ads. But were these campaigns explicitly political, or have viewers’ perspectives simply been altered by recent events?

“It’s interesting and cool that these brands felt the need to celebrate a part of the American values system that they think is under siege or in question,” said 72andSunny co-founder and creative chairman Glenn Cole. “But I know that, in our industry, producing any one of those campaigns—getting it conceived, approved, made, tested, re-approved, edited—takes longer than the heat or emotional signature of recent events would suggest. So they’re not a reaction to what has happened over the last several weeks.”

Jones also argued that Trump’s election made previously neutral brand statements feel more pointed. “Even the Kia ad was politically charged this time around,” he said. “What car company doesn’t support lower emissions? But suddenly you say that and you think, is that making a statement?”

Maybe we’re all over-analyzing this dichotomy as Trump upends perceived political norms. “Having a spot on the Superbowl is advertising’s red carpet,” said Jason Elm, executive creative director at Kansas City agency Barkley. “A brand can choose to blend in with a simple Calvin Klein gown or go full GaGa meat dress. I’m glad some brands chose to stick a flag in the ground.”

Not all observers were so enthusiastic. Robert Passikoff, Ph.D., founder and president of market research firm Brand Keys, reminded Adweek that statements perceived as political can be dangerous.

“Brands somehow have come to feel the need to involve themselves politically—even when they haven’t been called out by the President—when they ought to concentrate on category and brand positioning,” he said. “Brand advertising plus politics is a zero-sum proposition. Do you really need to scream, ‘We’re for diversity?’ It may feel good, but it usually doesn’t sell products.”

Social media mentions do not equal sales. But the election and its aftermath still occupy the minds of many Americans, a majority of whom did not vote for Trump. “Marketers can’t ignore how much politics has taken over our day-to-day dialogue,” said Huge group director of social Reema Mitra. “People who feel disenfranchised want to use their spending to make a difference, so it’s not surprising that brands are leaning into the moment and feel like it’s necessary to take a stand.”

Brands like Uber have been forced to take action due to politically-inspired backlash—and according to Twitter’s own metrics, advocacy ads like those for Audi and 84 Lumber were among the most-buzzed of the night.

"Having a spot on the Superbowl is advertising’s red carpet. A brand can choose to blend in with a simple Calvin Klein gown or go full GaGa meat dress."
Jason Elm, executive creative director at Barkley.

All agency creatives seemed to agree on the unexpected emotional and political one-two punch of the latter brand’s extended pro-immigration campaign, which happened to be Adweek’s favorite spot of the night.

I thought 84 Lumber was going to be pro-border wall,” said Jones. “It was a lumber yard, and they were going to chip in on building the wall.” But, as Cole put it, “The message is clearly, if you’re living in Mexico and need a job we have one. This is a lightning rod of a statement.”

Viewers also noted the lack of ads specifically addressing Trump supporters. “Lots of creative directors said they had to reassess how our brands talk to people after he won,” said Kevin Jones. “And you would expect some brands to cater to that. But I didn’t see any of it.”

And despite the back and forth, some still thought last night’s ads lacked the emotional heft of previous games. “If this were going to be a political Super Bowl, I really wish somebody had done something that just made you stop and think, like Chrysler’s Halftime in America,” said Cole. “84 Lumber came closest.”

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.