politicizing commercials

This February, Super Bowl LI commercials got political.

During an election cycle, commercials are used to sell politics. From praising certain candidates to advocating specific ideologies, campaign ads play a big role in persuading millions of Americans to vote and shaping the overall outcome of the elections.

Now, in a surprise twist, politics are being used to sell commercials. In a highly charged post-election America, with the nation’s citizens steeply divided on consequential issues, brands have been stepping into the fray and using those sensitive talking points to help sell everything from cars to beer.

This was, of course, most prominently exhibited during this month’s Super Bowl LI. One of the biggest trends during the commercial breaks was a lineup of politically charged ads from big brands like Budweiser and Audi, as well as a lesser-known company that took an even bigger gambit than both: 84 Lumber.

Budweiser revealed a touching 60-second spot showing the immigration story of its company’s co-founder, Adolphus Busch (“Born the Hard Way”). While the ad garnered a great deal of attention on social media, earning the hashtag #boycottbudweiser, a majority of feedback was actually in support of the beer company’s decision to take a stand with its soapbox during the biggest day of the year for sports (with about 111 million viewers on February 5, 2017).

Audi addressed gender equality and equal pay in an ad that told the story of a young girl drag-racing among her male peers. Her father is worried–but he’s not worried about her competing against boys in a rough sport, he’s worried that she won’t still be treated equal to them as an adult. It ends with Audi promising equal pay for equal work. While self-promoting, the message acknowledges that Audi is paying attention to issues that matter to people now.

84 Lumber¬†went for a very specific message by showing the story of a mother and daughter traveling to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. In a direct reference to the controversial plan to build a wall between the countries, the ad was less generic than the pro-immigration messages of brands like Budweiser and Coca-Cola. It was a risky move for this smaller company to choose an incendiary message, according to some analysts. But if they were simply looking to put their name in the spotlight, they certainly achieved their mission. It will be interesting to see if the company increases profits in the coming fiscal quarters, and if they’ll return again for next year’s Super Bowl.

On one hand, it’s a gamble for brands to take sides on political issues. They risk losing consumers across party lines. On the other, there’s a big potential for reward as the ads go viral (whether in favor or protest of them). And people who feel extremely passionate about an issue are likely to rally support for a brand that’s fighting for their cause. It’s important to never underestimate the impact of a bold message that touches a truly empassioned consumer base.

Keeping It Real

Even if a political ad is well-received by people who agree with its message, there’s a potential for blowback. People don’t want their beliefs exploited to manipulate their wallets. That’s why the political ads that resonated during Super Bowl LI were genuine and heartfelt, with very little product-pushing.

For example, AirBnB’s ad for Super Bowl Sunday was all about diversity and inclusivity, featuring a montage of faces from all different ethnic backgrounds (#weaccept). But it only briefly displayed the company’s logo at the very end, without talking about the website’s home-sharing services at all. And that’s the way to go to avoid having a bold, political message hit a sour note with authenticity-seeking consumers.