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Super Bowl Ads Get Political

The Super Bowl, aka the second most anticipated date in an advertiser’s diary after Christmas, is over for another year.

“Despite the bleeding-edge camera work and instantaneous graphics, the Super Bowl is a throwback to an earlier era of mass media,” says Ogilvy Co-Chairman and CCO Tham Khai Meng, pointing out that it is one of the few events in the entertainment calendar where a sizeable portion of the American audience can be found watching the same thing at the same time. And while that may be true, the traditions of the Super Bowl, i.e. the ads and the halftime show, still carry cultural weight.

“In this climate, Super Bowl commercials have never seemed to matter less, and, at the same time, because we are looking for meaning everywhere, to matter more,” writes Ian Crouch for The New Yorker. This search for meaning led viewers to scour Lady Gaga’s 13-minute halftime show for oblique political commentary. Some bemoaned the performance for playing it safe and sticking to the crowd-pleasing hits, while others praised Gaga for including LGBT anthem ‘Born This Way’ in the set-list when Vice-President Mike Pence was watching.

“But what about the ads?” I hear you cry. “Were they any good?” The answer is… yes and no. The majority of this year’s spots were of a sort with Gaga’s show; entertaining but safe, and containing few surprises. Hardly a shock, considering Super Bowl broadcaster Fox and the NFL both had power of veto over commercials aired during the game.

Nevertheless, a handful of brands did get obliquely political, speaking out against division without ever mentioning the president’s name.

It’s A 10

The ‘It’s A 10’ ad kicked off with a cheap shot at a certain despot’s hairdo before showcasing ‘great’ hair across a diverse cast of models, highlighting the beauty of people with different ethnicities and body types.

Audi: “Daughter”

The spot for Audi focused on the gender wage gap, and concluded with a statement of the company’s mission to achieve gender parity. An admirable goal, but one wrapped up in the clichéd narrative of a father whose concerns about sexism and gender inequality are a product of having a daughter. Why not show a mother with concerns for her child’s future? Or would a woman’s voice been too off-putting in an ad for a luxury car?

Budweiser: “Born The Hard Way”

A lot was said about Budweiser’s ad prior to its big screening on Sunday, with commentators rightly predicting that supporters of President Trump and his travel ban would not be pleased with such a pro-immigration message. And while Anheuser-Busch have stated that it was not their intention to be political, but rather to celebrate the heritage of their brand, the ad still prompted an online campaign to #BoycottBudwiser. (That’s right; the angry hashtag which trended online was misspelled.)

84 Lumber: “The Journey” 

This immigration story generated fewer column inches than the Budweiser spot but is arguably more relevant today, following the journey of a mother and daughter from Mexico to the United States. The original edit of the ad saw the pair reach a giant wall, but Fox refused to air that version, and so viewers were shown only half of the video, and were encouraged to follow the rest of the story online.

Airbnb: #WeAccept

Airbnb’s #WeAccept was tonally low-key but pulled no punches with its message of diversity and inclusion. The clip simply showed a series of faces, of every ethnicity, religion and gender, and stated; “The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

Such broad messages of inclusion and equality should not seem radical in 2017, but these ads stand out because so few had anything to say. “America heard its biggest brands state clearly and with one voice that we are a diverse, united, tolerant, and loving nation,” says Meng, who sees these once taken-for-granted values as in desperate need of reasserting in the current climate.

And perhaps the best Super Bowl commercial of the weekend was indeed one which celebrated love and change, although it wasn’t broadcast during the game. Saturday Night Live’s ‘Totinos’ sketch aired the evening before; starring Kristen Stewart and Vanessa Bayer, the halftime spoof recognises and skewers a whole range of Super Bowl advertising clichés, before evolving midway into something altogether more surprising. The video is bold, funny, and original. Advertisers, take note.

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