The Super Bowl ads that tugged at American politics

During Super Bowl LI, both the inclusion of politics or lack thereof stir national conversation.

In what is known as one of the most-watched events on television, with networks charging enormous amounts for advertising spots, the content of the ads often rivals the game itself for national attention.

On Sunday night, during Super Bowl LI, it was both the inclusion – and the avoidance – of political statements that drew comments nationwide, further underscoring the nation's political divide, especially on immigration issues.

For example, Budweiser’s most recent advertisement, which aired in the week leading-up to the Super Bowl, featured founder Adolphus Busch immigrating from Germany and facing both anti-immigration sentiments before being welcomed to St. Louis and meeting future partner, Eberhard Anheuser.

The commercial initially aired just days after President Trump implemented a temporary travel ban on Muslim immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Some viewers drew a connection between recent events and the Budweiser advertisement, sparking a “boycott Budweiser” movement among segments of the population.

Budweiser stood behind their decision, stating that the concept for their advertisement titled, "Born the Hard Way," had been in development for nearly a year.

"We created the Budweiser commercial to highlight the ambition of our founder, Adolphus Busch, and his unrelenting pursuit of the American dream," Marcel Marcondes, vice president of marketing at Anheuser-Busch, told The Washington Post.

"This is a story about our heritage and the uncompromising commitment that goes into brewing our beer."

Another company tried to make an overt political statement about immigration with its ad, but was rejected by Fox, the network hosting the Super Bowl. 84 Lumber, a privately owned building supply company. A revised and less controversial 90-second ad was approved and aired, inviting Super Bowl viewers to watch the original full five-minute ad that depicts a mother and daughter traveling from what appears to be Mexico. The girl collects scraps of plastic along the way and stitches together an American flag. The journey stops when they encounter a tall, long wall, and her mother appears disheartened, until they spot a large set of doors. A pick up truck with lumber is shown driving away, the implication being that someone built a passageway in the wall. Text on the last scene reads: "The will to succeed is always welcome here."

The 84 Lumber ad drew similarly mixed reviews.

"Ignoring the border wall and the conversation around immigration that’s taking place in the media and at every kitchen table in America just didn’t seem right," said Rob Shapiro, the chief client officer at Brunner, the agency that worked with 84 Lumber to come up with the ad, told The Washington Post. "If everyone else is trying to avoid controversy, isn’t that the time when brands should take a stand for what they believe in?"

Meanwhile rather than developing a new advertisement, Coca-Cola chose instead to re-air their Super Bowl commercial from 2014 which featured people of different ethnicities singing America the Beautiful in different languages.

"I thought it was great for Coke to air an old ad because today it feels even more relevant than it did in 2014 when they first aired it," said Lynn Power, chief executive of J. Walter Thompson New York to The New York Times, adding that based on the decision, "you can’t say it’s a reactionary thing."

And Audi chose to create an advertisement that featured a voice-over of a father pointedly questioning what sort of conversation he will have with his daughter as she competes in a cart race, "Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?"

The commercial ended with text stating that Audi America is "committed to equal pay for equal work."

Though the Audi advertisement had gone viral by the Friday before the Super Bowl, making political statements during the game can be complicated.

Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen, the TV ratings company, told The New York Times, "If you make people think too much or get too serious during a game where people are really looking to be entertained, you’re taking a risk."

The risk isn't just to the brand longer term, but it's also financial. 

At about $5 million for a 30-second commercial, Super Bowl advertisements are notoriously pricey – a 30-second ad during an ordinary popular television show could cost between $200,000 and $500,000. The high ad rates are a product of the audience size, which averages between 110 and 115 million people annually, according to Forbes.

According to census data, that number represents just over one-third of the total United States population, making it one of the largest television platforms of the year.

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