Remember when Super Bowl marketing trends were mostly focused on football, beer, and babes? Advertisers have classed it up a bit over the last decade, and beer ads with half-naked girl fights (Miller Light circa 2003) have given way to beer ads with lost puppies (Budweiser circa 2015). Of course, there are still plenty of ads about partying and football, and the occasional commercial that makes you go, “Huh?” (Remember Mountain Dew’s “Puppybabymonkey“? Probably. It’s hard to forget.)
Yes, we’ve seen some unexpected things at the Super Bowl—from Steve Buscemi dressed as Marilyn Monroe in a Snickers commercial, to Janet Jackson accidentally getting undressed during the 2004 halftime show.
What we haven’t typically seen are advertisers going political, which makes sense. Super Bowl airtime is expensive—more than $5 million for a 30-second spot this year—and the brands that can afford them tend to be large companies with diverse customer bases. Marketers are rarely willing to shell out that kind of cash for content that might offend and alienate key demographics.
But this year, several brands took the risk. Rather than spending millions to promote their products, they used creative thinking to promote their values, even if that meant ruffling some feathers.
Why are Super Bowl ads suddenly going political, and what can marketers learn about storytelling from the most talked-about Super Bowl ads of 2017?
After a nasty election cycle where we saw presidential candidates bickering like teenagers on social media, our country has spent the last few months . . . well, bickering like teenagers on social media. Love him or hate him, this new president evokes strong emotions, particularly when it comes to his anti-immigration agenda. And the conversation surrounding it hasn’t generally been a civil one, on either side.
Right now, it’s hard not to think about politics, to talk about politics, to hear about politics. And individuals aren’t the only ones with something to say. Many brands have made the conscious content strategy decision to take a stance on serious topics, even during what is typically a night for lighthearted product messaging. But rather than mimicking the name-calling and hateful comments that have driven many Americans to take a Facebook break, these Super Bowl advertisers chose to focus on more positive (albeit still controversial) topics: diversity and inclusion.
Some commercials tapped into these marketing trends in subtle ways. For example, the ad for Google Home begins with someone driving past a house with a rainbow flag and then goes on to show heartwarming reunions as multiethnic people enter their various homes and the homes of their loved ones.
In a more overt statement about American diversity, Coca-Cola reran its “It’s Beautiful” ad from 2014, in which people of various races and ethnicities sing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. When the ad first aired two years ago, it drew both praise for its unifying message and criticism from viewers who didn’t like hearing the beloved patriotic song in any language other than English. The response was pretty much the same this year.
Coca-Cola doesn’t seem to mind the backlash, but Budweiser certainly does. Some beer drinkers are threatening to boycott the brand after it ran a seemingly pro-immigration ad which tells the story of company founder, Adolphus Busch, who moved to America from Germany in the 1800s with dreams of becoming a beer maker. In the 60-second spot, we see Busch reach America, where he is greeted with cries of, “You’re not wanted here. Go home!” (Sound familiar?) After a long and arduous journey across the country, he finally reaches St. Louis, where his perseverance pays off and he makes his American dream come true.
Budweiser execs insist the ad was not meant to be a political statement, but rather a glimpse into the history of Budweiser. They also point out that the commercial was already in the works before Trump’s November win. But protesters aren’t buying it, and given the timing—and the fact that Trump was talking about building a wall and banning Muslims long before Election Day—it’s hard to believe that no one on the Budweiser marketing team realized people would associate the story with the current political climate. By denying the relationship, Budweiser has also disappointed fans who wanted the ad to be about something bigger than beer, so it’s probably safe to say that Budweiser—whose Super Bowl commercials are usually among the most popular—missed the mark all around this year.
But there are other brand storytellers who used story craft to take a clear political stance in their ads, leaving some viewers feeling angry and others feeling empowered and uplifted.
For the past year and a half, we’ve heard that we need a wall to “keep Americans safe from illegal Mexican immigrants.” But hardware store chain 84 Lumber used its Super Bowl ad to tell the other side of the story, one about people who come here to provide better opportunities for their families.
The company had to make two versions of the ad after the original content was rejected by the FOX, whose guidelines say Super Bowl commercial time is not “for viewpoint or advocacy of controversial issues.”
The original version of the ad depicts a mother and daughter traveling through Mexico on their way to America, but when they reach the border, they find a giant wall, presumably the one Trump says he will build. In the version that aired, they don’t make it as far as the wall.
Either way, the story begins with the mother and daughter preparing for their trip. After an emotional goodbye with the family members they’re leaving behind in Mexico, they begin their journey. Strangers help them out with rides and water, but they spend much of the time walking in the hot sun. Along the way, the little girl collects various bits of trash—a white plastic bag, a scrap from a blue tent cover, a red wrapper from the piece of candy her grandfather gave her before they left. We see her weaving them together one night in front of a campfire, but it’s not until they reach the wall that we learn what she’s made. To comfort her devastated mother, she pulls out her creation—an American flag. This makes the mother cry and she appears ready to give up, until she notices a giant wooden door, which they push open and walk through.
The story then cuts to a man driving away in his truck, which is loaded with the tools and leftover lumber that his crew used to build the door. And we see the tagline, “The will to succeed is always welcome here.” (Watch the full version below.)
The ad sparked a hot debate online and generated so much traffic that it temporarily crashed the 84 Lumber website. The company was quick to clarify that it meant to endorse legal immigration and the door was a metaphor for that. As they explained in one Tweet, “Pres Trump said there should be a ‘big, beautiful door in the wall so people can enter legally.’ We couldn’t agree more.”
The commercial reminds us about the importance of said door using the most powerful tool there is for instilling empathy: an emotional story. We see the mother’s sadness as she leaves her home for the sake of her daughter. We see her initial excitement at the possibility of a new life and then her exhaustion as the journey continues. And when they reach the wall, we see her heart break. Not only do we feel for her; we understand her. After all, what good parent wouldn’t do whatever it takes to give their children the best possible shot at a good life?
And yes, it made plenty of people angry. But either way, it did what a story is supposed to do: it made us feel.
Airbnb—an online marketplace where people can rent their homes or extra rooms to travelers—wasn’t planning to advertise during the Super Bowl, according to The New York Times. But the company’s three founders felt so strongly about Trump’s recent travel ban on seven Muslim countries that they shelled out the $5 million to make a statement. On January 29, the CEO sent out a memo telling his staff: “This is a policy I profoundly disagree with, and it is a direct obstacle to our mission at Airbnb.” That weekend, the company began to provide temporary housing for people affected by the immigration restrictions, and when they discovered ad space was still available for the big game, they did something downright crazy: they made a Super Bowl ad in three days.
Using footage they already had on hand and some serious creative thinking, the founders and the company’s head of marketing worked quickly. The resulting commercial shows more than a dozen faces of varying ages, races, genders, and ethnicities—and uses a split screen effect to merge the various faces. Over the footage, the text reads: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”
The commercial highlights Airbnb’s new #WeAccept campaign, which includes a commitment to provide free short-term housing for 100,000 displaced people over the next five years, including refugees and victims of natural disasters, and to donate $4 million over the next four years to the International Rescue Committee.
What makes this ad so powerful? It leverages two key marketing trends: cause marketing (consumers love to see companies put their money where their mouths are, assuming those consumers agree with the cause) and poignant storytelling. The ad is not like the long, dramatic story that 84 Lumber told. It’s simple but elegant, reminding us that you don’t always need an elaborate narrative to tell an emotional story. You just need a characters with whom the audience can identify, a conflict for them to overcome, and at least the hint of a resolution.
Granted, these commercials weren’t for everyone, and it’s unlikely they changed many hearts and minds. Both brands were essentially preaching to the choir, but for those of us who needed to hear a positive message and to be reminded that diversity still matters to most Americans, these were sermons worth hearing.