Why Super Bowl Ads (Mostly) Dodged Political Messages This Year

Funny or unifying spots are a safer bet for polarized times

Audi's Super Bowl ad used humor to promote its electric vehicles. Audi

Whether it was a spot from Budweiser reminding viewers about the company’s own immigrant roots or an emotional 90-second ad from 84 Lumber depicting an immigrant family’s journey to a border wall, brands rushed to the national stage with political purpose in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election in 2017.

Two years later, corporations have largely backed away from political messages that might be interpreted as divisive, instead opting for the tried-and-true tactics of humor or uplifting messages with a broad appeal.

Christopher Lehmann, the managing director of the San Francisco office of the brand consulting firm Landor, said many brands are settling back into a combination of old-school advertising tactics targeting men or pushing brand messages that could universally be deemed as positive.

“Historically, Super Bowl ads have been mostly focused on the sophomoric guy appeal—fast cars, pretty girls, drinking beers with your buds,” Lehmann said. “A few years ago, some brands wanted to rise above, and you saw ad spots with a political vein in them, or brands that had a social purpose— talking about the things we all believe in. When you look at this year, it mostly feels like they are coalescing back somewhere in the middle.”

That’s not to say all of the brands in this year’s Super Bowl broadcast shied away from politics entirely. Hulu, for instance, made reference to the iconic Ronald Reagan re-election ad “Morning in America” to promote the third season of its dystopian thriller The Handmaid’s Tale. Another ad from the Washington Post paid tribute to slain reporters and promoted the importance of a free press.

But overall, Lehmann said, brands this year are sidestepping potential hot-button issues.

Steve McMahon, the co-founder of the political consultancy Purple Strategies, said brands are already taking a risk by advertising in the Super Bowl, which has become more political itself as players have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and as conservative lawmakers and even President Trump himself have objected to the protests.

Nike, which is not advertising in the Super Bowl, has backed football player Colin Kaepernick, who is in an ongoing legal battle with the NFL after alleging that the league colluded to keep him out of the game over his political activism and his protests during the anthem. Other brands, though, have kept a wide berth.

“The NFL itself has become more polarizing than it used to be,” McMahon said.  “For that reason alone, you have brands that are much more thoughtful and deliberate about whether that venue is as safe as it was some time ago.”

That may be one reason why some of the most memorable ads from the Super Bowl this year were focused on trying to make viewers laugh, said John Gatti, Purple Strategies’ managing partners.

“People like to come together on a platform that might already have a moderately shaky foundation to it, and use the platform to laugh and smile,”  Gatti said. “Humor is a common strategy that’s accepted and well-used, and it can be very effective.”

There’s data to suggest why brands might be unwilling to use the gargantuan Super Bowl stage to promote a political message.

Nearly 45 percent of U.S. adults said they would stop doing business with a company that takes a political position they disagree with, and more than 70 percent said they would take some sort of action against the company provided that it espoused a political stance with which they disagreed, according to a nationally representative survey of 1,000 U.S. adults that the consultancy Group Gordon released in January.

That’s not to say that brands are dodging messages that have some purpose behind it, though. Take Bumble’s ad featuring Serena Williams, for example, that pushed a message of women’s empowerment, or ads from Coke and Google that promoted togetherness. While those messages are unlikely to ruffle many feathers, Lehmann said, they promote brand goodwill nonetheless.

Don’t write off the chance that political ads from brands might show up in future Super Bowl broadcasts, though, Lehmann said.

“In a lot of ways, the Super Bowl is a barometer about how the country thinks about itself, and how brands think about themselves,” Lehmann said.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.