If you boiled the Super Bowl down to its core, you’d see that it was made up of five things:
- American patriotism
- Indigestion-inducing food and beverage
- The half time show
- The ads
Super Bowl ads have high production value, are entertaining, and extremely expensive to buy (up to $5M in the US market). Enormous awareness drivers, they are watched live, they are watched on YouTube, and they are compared and contrasted at watercoolers for days after they air.
The ads have traditionally ranged from jokes selling chips (like this one for Doritos), jokes selling chocolate bars (like this one for Snickers), jokes selling cars (like this one for Hyundai), and Budweiser Clydesdales and puppies.
But last year (2017), if you’ll recall, the tenor of the ads took a turn. Under the new American administration, they were distinctly more politically charged; to the degree that Fox refused to air one of them and some outlets (including Fox and Breitbart) insisted that the Super Bowl ought to remain untainted by politics.
So – a year out, do we know if it’s worth it for brands to have a political opinion at an event that has such a mass appeal? Let’s have a look at a couple of cases, shall we?
Case 1: 84 Lumber.
The most distinctly political ad of last year’s event was 84 Lumber’s. As their agency put it, it “broke the internet and won the Super Bowl”. The goal of the ad was to increase HR recruitment amongst men, aged 20 – 29. Focusing on an immigration story and featuring a border wall that was cast as the enemy (and something to be taken on, head on), the 84 Lumber ad was considered so controversial that Fox refusing to air it.
Despite not getting air time, it was the most talked about subject on Facebook on that Sunday evening, while also being the top trending YouTube video on Super Bowl Sunday evening, all day on the Monday following, and still in the top 20 the day after that. With over 500K hits to their landing page, the volume reportedly crashed their site (or, maybe it didn’t; their agency later clarified that the site didn’t crash but was “throttled”.)
While awareness was one of the key reasons for running the campaign, with a hugely diverse viewership of the Super Bowl, being the talk of the town isn’t always positive. There was some backlash, accusing the ad (and the company) of condoning and even encouraged illegal immigration. Despite this, the ad seems to have paid dividends.
- Consumer sentiment quadrupled in the week following the Super Bowl and remained on the positive side of the ledger as time passed.
- Brand awareness jumped from 31% to 51% in the week after the campaign.
- Purchase consideration jumped from 4% to 11%.
- Of the online activity, 10% was overtly positive and 7% was overtly negative.
As a first-time Super Bowl advertiser, there were many who waited awkwardly to see how the world would react to the aggressive ad. And, of course, it wasn’t all rosy. But, the lasting results seem to be positive (though they haven’t repeated their efforts this year).
Case 2: Budweiser
As luck would have it, where 84 Lumber seemed to get the benefit of the doubt, Budweiser was held accountable. The beer brand endured more strife with a less overtly political message – likely because the approach was a departure for them. The story of Adolphus Busch and his arrival in America (where he became successful despite being treated poorly as an immigrant) was found to be offensive to many viewers.
#boycottbudwiser (yes, the spelling was incorrect on the trending hashtag), built up a lot of steam and became a trending topic on Twitter on the Monday. One researcher found that across social media there were 98,952 online mentions of the Budweiser brand on Sunday, of which 20% were positive and 28% were negative.
But, it wasn’t all bad news. The ad was the most viewed of the Super Bowl on YouTube. A Stanford study estimated that Budweiser has an ROI on their Super Bowl ads of roughly 172% and they hold exclusive rights to national beer commercials in the Super Bowl for 20 years. In all likelihood this ad was in development long before immigration policy became a hot button topic in the United States. Concepts around inclusivity have been something that InBev has found that viewers are willing to consume up until this time, but they unexpectedly trod in a hornets’ nest in 2017.
Case 3: The Other Ads.
The other “politically charged ads” weren’t quite as overt. Google had an ad that went into peoples’ homes and featured a very representative cross section of the country. Audi had a (slightly awkward) feminist anthem of a father wanting a better future for his daughter (followed by the company’s commitment to equal pay; but not by giving a woman membership on their board of directors). AirBNB did a gentle spot spotlighting all the people that they accept, no matter race, religion, or sexual orientation.
Here’s What I Think.
The Super Bowl has mass appeal. The viewership is very diverse. The concept that ads that celebrate diversity is somehow “politically charged” is more a representation of the political climate than the make up of the audience. And I’d presume that most people watching would see themselves represented, in one way or another, in those ads.
So, is it worth doing politically charged Super Bowl ads? I believe that brands want to make a connection with their audience. To really do that, they need to say what they stand for. And if what they stand for is inclusivity, then go for it. If you’re unwilling to really back it up (Audi), if you’re a broad-based brand that wants to cater to everyone (Budweiser), or if it’s poorly executed/contrived (*Kendell Jenner and Pepsi) your customers will at very least raise an eyebrow and at worst push back.
Some say the challenge facing brands is to find “something interesting enough to get noticed and shared, but without alienating or offending a large portion of the population”.
I’d say the challenge is figuring out what you and your consumers stand for – and pushing that forward.