February 07, 2017
Apparently, the political ads didn't end when the election did! The 113 million fans who tuned into Sunday's Super Bowl thriller found that out the hard way, getting an earful of a lot more than Tom Brady's comeback. For once, the biggest controversy in football's championship game had nothing to do with the half-time show. A different kind of exposure grabbed headlines this time, as corporate executives bared their political agendas in provocative ads. Despite the $5 million price tag, a surprising number of companies chose to inflame instead of entertain, a major break from tradition for most brand's biggest PR moment of the year.
For corporate heavyweights like Google, Coca-Cola, 84 Lumber, Budweiser, and Airbnb, staying on the sidelines in the early days of the Trump administration wasn't an option for Super Bowl LI. They left product placement in the rearview and opted for controversial statements on everything from immigration to sexuality. While some companies kept it light (Terry Bradshaw in a golf cart), a parade of liberal businesses proved that the real clash in our country isn't on the field but off it. "We all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept," Airbnb insisted. Google squeezed in plenty of subliminal messages -- and some not-so-subliminal rainbow flags.
Then there was 84 Lumber, who didn't win over a lot of conservatives with its attack on Trump's immigration crackdown in its commercial bashing a Mexican border wall. "There is an example of an unsophisticated advertiser making a political statement, and not really caring whether it helps them sell any lumber," said Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting. Then, of course, there was Audi, which tried to make a statement about equal pay -- only to be outed for having an all-male board.
Just as in football, there are winners and losers from Sunday's corporate blitz. Like me, most people tuning into the Super Bowl were probably hoping for a break from Washington. Instead, they got a front-row seat to an all-out political assault from some of America's best known brands. As most experts will tell you, these companies took a huge risk using one of the world's largest stages to throw their lot in with the liberal crowd. If you want to know how badly that hurts businesses, ask Target, Starbucks, GrubHub, Kellogg's, and others. "When it comes to politics, most brands prefer to [stay neutral], for good reason," said Kelly O'Keefe, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Brands used to worry about whether their ad could be interpreted as right or wrong. Now they have to worry about whether it will be interpreted as right or left."
While a lot of executives are busier than a laundry machine spinning the reviews of Sunday's crusade, the results weren't nearly as positive as they'd like you to believe. As Fox News pointed out yesterday, the YouTube version of some of these commercials had more thumbs downs than thumbs up. Either these executives haven't learned their lesson or they're willing to tank their revenue to make a political point (which isn't exactly a popular option with shareholders). They underestimated the power of the consumer before the election -- and even now, after watching the stocks of outspoken CEOs freefall, they're stubbornly plowing ahead with a business model destined to alienate half of their customers. If CEOs want to enter the culture wars, that's their prerogative. But they shouldn't be surprised when shoppers settle the score.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.