While New England Patriots football fans celebrated a sudden and surprising victory Sunday, a parallel underdog story unfolded online as a controversial Super Bowl advertisement propelled an obscure building supplies company to national fame.
The 90-second ad for Pittsburgh-based 84 Lumber follows a Mexican mother and daughter's arduous journey to the United States, concluding on an ambiguous note and urging viewers to visit the company's website for the rest of the story. The website version of the commercial, reportedly deemed too controversial to air on television, shows the pair arriving at the US border to find a tall, concrete wall blocking their path. There is a moment of despair before the mother spots a way in: a large, wooden door, which they push open with ease, allowing them to enter the country. A parting message flashes across the screen: "The will to succeed is always welcome here."
84 Lumber chief executive officer Maggie Hardy Magerko, a Trump supporter who has said that a border wall "is a need," told reporters that the intention behind the ad was to encourage "treating people with dignity and respect," not to make a political statement about immigration. But that didn't stop thousands of social media users from interpreting it as one, as Twitter and Facebook lit up with equal parts praise and criticism of the commercial. To many, the ad represented opposition to the border wall proposed by President Trump. To others, its message aligned with the administration's call for stricter border control.
"Part of the reason why there has been so much polarization in response to this ad can be traced back to the ambiguity of the ad itself," says Yamil Velez, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "Ambiguity usually leads people to reinforce their prior beliefs. Whereas the expectation would be that when you give people mixed evidence they would maybe moderate their positions, we generally find that people reinforce their prior beliefs and attitudes ... and interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their preexisting notions of the world."
At face value, the advertisement appears to be "quite critical" of the Trump administration's stance on immigration and proposed border wall, says Alexandra Filindra, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
"The way that most people interpreted it ... is very much a strong stance for much kinder, more gentle immigration [policy]. You see this mother and child going through the door, which means that somehow they’re worthy of entering the country, that they deserve to come in and break that barrier and that the hardship that they've gone through entitles them in some way to enter," she tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "The ad makes a pretty clear statement, at least in my eyes, that people who are ... coming in, in an effort to support their kids and their families, deserve to be allowed in."
Further adding to this common perception is the lack of any sort of border patrol or representation of the legal immigration process in the ad, Professor Filindra notes.
But for some viewers familiar with Trump's call for a "big, beautiful door" in the wall for legal immigrants, the ad took on a very different meaning.
"It’s very literal in the sense that it literally demonstrates the metaphor of a big door in the border wall," says Jason Ruiz, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "That's not a very nuanced thing. That is clubbing viewers over the head with a metaphor that Trump used."
More subtly conservative is the commercial's use of a mother and child to represent the immigrants welcomed into the country, Professor Ruiz says.
"There is a very long tradition of representing the 'good immigrants' as parts of the American dream. But ... not everyone is a child. Not everyone has a family. Not everyone looks like the woman and child that are held up as the embodiment of the 'good immigrant.' That leaves out a lot of people, and that's why I find representations like that ultimately conservative," he tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "The idea of the door in the wall is saying give us your good people, your innocent people, as if border policy should have a personality test."
Ideological interpretation aside, the intimate portrayal of Latino immigrants injects a needed dose of humanity into a debate that is all-too-often framed in terms of policy and statistics, says Scott Blinder, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
"People of all political stripes start to sound a little bit different when you talk about particular immigrants as opposed to this big faceless phenomenon of immigration," Professor Blinder tells the Monitor in an interview. "You can argue about the ins and outs of how these particular immigrants were portrayed and how representative they are, but it could be useful to get people talking about immigrants as people as opposed to this sort of abstract phenomenon."
"If you're in a position of not knowing too many immigrants yourself, it's almost a secondhand form of contact to see this very empathetic, positive portrayal of two characters in an ad," he adds. "It's not quite the same as knowing a real person, but you empathize in some of the same ways."