Once upon a time, the majority of Super Bowl commercials were aimed at beer-chugging men, largely appealing to their adolescent tendencies. It was about junk food, extravagant gas-guzzling automobiles or any number of other potentially pointless purchases that drive American consumption.
Not last Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The commercials during Super Bowl LI were the most politicized Super Bowl ads in recent memory. Airbnb, 84 Lumber, Budweiser, Audi and It’s a 10 Hair Care all paid in excess of $5 million per 30 seconds to have their hyper-politicized spots aired in front of the biggest television audience of the year.
Is this the new frontier of advertising? And, if so, why?
If you’re marketing your brand, why put politics in the middle of that campaign? You’re almost guaranteed to upset a potential customer, regardless of the political message you’re attempting to exploit.
In case you missed it, 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad featured a mother and daughter apparently making the trip illegally from Latin America to the United States. An Airbnb ad boasted of diversity of clientele, including refugees. A minute-long commercial from Budweiser featured Adolphus Busch’s immigration to the U.S., where he is greeted with hostility and hardship as he heads to St. Louis, where he joins up with Eberhard Anheuser. And another for It’s a 10 Hair Care products telling us we were “in for at least four years of awful hair,” an obvious ad hominem shot at President Donald Trump.
Perhaps the most puzzling came from German automaker Audi, which wanted to remind us to assume gender inequality is ubiquitous and that fathers must contemplate discouraging their daughters by telling them that they “will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets.” Leaving aside the fact that the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, could you imagine a better way to undermine a young person’s future success than telling them that they are simply less valuable? What a horrible message to send. How about work hard and slay any obstacle?
All of those commercials sort of attacked their featured political issue from a left-of-center perspective, as in “we all want both legal and illegal immigrants and refugees, a break from presidents with bad hair, and that despite America being the land of opportunity, little girls should start out life knowing that they will be viewed as less valuable than men.”
While there are certainly those that will be cheering on the message, and in some cases even a majority of Americans, all of those advertisements are destined to upset a sizeable portion of people.
Somehow that seems to defeat the purpose of marketing. You sell product by addition, not subtraction. Perhaps the math is that you will net more customers by appealing to their politics than losing customers by going against their politics.
One possibility is that introducing politics into marketing isn’t a direct effort promote a product or a brand, but instead to create buzz about the commercials themselves. Are they thinking that if they take one of these bold stances on a hot-button political topic, like gender equality, for example, that on Monday people will convene at the water cooler to discuss that poignant Audi commercial?
Another possibility is advertisers are thinking that, given the political leanings of some media outlets, they will get more earned media — which is airtime and attention — because they are speaking to the biases of editors, producers, reporters, etc.
Whatever is going on, it is a radical change from days of old. You would win the attention of the audience by being clever with humor or a tug at the heart strings. Remember Mean Joe Green in the 1979 Super Bowl? The 1984 Apple Super Bowl commercial playing on Orwell’s “1984?” Estranged rivals David Letterman and Jay Leno teaming up with Oprah at the “worst Super Bowl party ever” to promote CBS’s “The Late Show?”
However, given our hyper-politicized climate, the low-hanging fruit for marketing firms may very well be to exploit the politics.
But that is still risky given our politics are so polarized.
It seems likely that it is not about selling a product or brand buzz at all. In some cases, this might be a means of corporate boards assuaging their guilt about their own failings. Surely Audi’s marketing division is aware that its six-member supervisory board is all male. Is 84 Lumber worried that its product sales may suffer if labor cost go up because contractors are no longer able to exploit cheap illegal immigrant labor?
Who knows what the motives behind these efforts are, but what is happening on Madison Avenue is a trend that parallels what is going on in Hollywood. The so-called elites of these institutions seem to be producing for an audience of each other instead of the American public as a whole.
Rarely are the top-grossing movies in Hollywood in line for any sort of recognition at the various red-carpeted Hollywood award ceremonies. They are movies that a lot of people probably have never even heard of.
The reality is a lot of these mega-corporations dabbling in politics through marketing are doing so to their own detriment.
In politics, you do have to wait for an election for it to really count. Sure, you may sway a vote in Congress here or there with an effective campaign, but the actual people have already spoken.
In the commercial marketplace, it is different. The impact can be immediate if there is a miscue involving the reputation of a product. Stock prices can suffer. It’ll take its toll on sales. Ultimately, profits go down, and upset shareholders make it likely you have someone new running the company.
Given this state’s love for football, it is likely that a majority of Alabamians were tuned into last Sunday’s game. It is highly unlikely, however, that a left-wing commercial claiming rampant gender inequity will cause any Alabamians to go to one of the four Audi dealerships in the state and say, “Darn it, you were right about that whole gender inequality thing. Now I want buy an Audi A4!”
Probably just the opposite.