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Do the politically charged Super Bowl ads reflect a change in corporate America?

Is it OK to punch a Nazi? Only in self-defence alas. Although, if last month’s Super Bowl ads are anything to go by, corporate America doesn’t seem to have much of a problem piling into the fascist element currently residing in the White House.

Whilst the New England Patriots were locked in combat with the Atlanta Falcons, an altogether more important offensive manoeuvre was playing out in the commercial breaks (let’s hope Trump hadn’t gone for a pee).

Who’d have thought it? The corporate world as a somewhat unlikely ally for the pussy hat brigade. Strange times indeed.

These days, if you’re an ‘on message’ company man or woman, equality, diversity and tolerance are very much the order of the day. And who can possibly have a problem with that? Oh… the government of the most powerful nation on Earth it seems. In fact, things are so bad that 97 companies including Budweiser, Apple, Google, Airbnb, Facebook, Levi Strauss & Co, Intel and Uber have recently filed a legal brief condemning President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Who’d have thought it? The corporate world as a somewhat unlikely ally for the pussy hat brigade. Strange times indeed.

Some companies have really put their money where their mouth is by broadcasting compassionate, politically-charged messages to 114 million Americans, during the Super Bowl. See? Advertising isn’t full of liars and snake oil salesmen (unlike the Oval Office).

First up, Budweiser, with a re-enactment of the arrival of immigrant Adolphus Busch to the United States and his meeting with fellow immigrant Eberhard Anheuser. The story of America’s favourite beer as timely, even though perhaps unintended, comment on the current administration’s position on immigration.

A more overt broadside came from Lumber, a building supplies company. Their ad, featuring the heart-rending story of a Mexican mother and daughter undertaking a hazardous journey to the US only to be confronted by a giant wall, was actually banned because it was deemed too political. The full version could only be seen online. In fact, so many people wanted to watch it that Lumber’s website crashed. Even Audi jumped on the turbocharged, all-wheel drive liberal bandwagon, with an ad about gender equality. In ‘Daughter’, a girl races boys in toy cars and wins. That’s it. Nice voiceover by George Clooney though.

It’s a shame that none of these are great ads. They’re just planner’s ads – so pleased with themselves at the strategy, they’ve forgotten to dramatise it particularly well. But the subject matter is indeed incredibly progressive and culturally relevant. So what’s going on?

Well, of course all these brands still exist to create shareholder value, i.e. make piles of dosh. And the CEO will still be brutally despatched if they don’t deliver ever-increasing short-term profits.

So is this a mere marketing ploy? And if so, does it matter? Promoting ‘good’ can’t be a bad thing can it? Or are these brands just cynically profiting by easing our collective conscience as consumers, so we don’t have to actually do anything else to feel good about ourselves other than buy their stuff?

And what about the millions of people who voted for Trump? I’m guessing that kindness and compassion aren’t exactly what most of them are looking for in a beer brand or a sheet of exterior shuttering ply. Will these ads resonate with them? The social media response suggests not.

Audi is still embroiled in the diesel emissions scandal (having duplicitously run an environmental ad during the 2010 Super Bowl). And we now discover that following their gender equality message this year, Audi has no women on its six-person executive team and only 16% of its board is female. So is this a sensible communications strategy? Are these brands really taking a stand for what they truly believe in? Well, something’s definitely in the air.

Let’s hope it’s not just the whiff of corporate bullshit.


Paul Belford is founder and creative director of agency Paul Belford Ltd. See paulbelford.com and @belford_paul

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