One of America’s largest advertisers has found itself caught in the country’s deep political divisions with a Super Bowl ad whose message jars with President Donald Trump’s controversial clampdown on immigration.
Budweiser is one of several advertisers in the first Super Bowl of the Trump era embracing patriotic themes in the commercials that are as much of a draw as the football.
But in the bitter political climate of 2017, ads that in past years would not have been controversial — the “American dream” story of an immigrant founding the country’s biggest brewer — are taking on unanticipated significance.
Budweiser’s commercial tells the story of Adolphus Busch, who came to the US from Germany in 1857. It shows Busch arriving in America to taunts of “you’re not wanted here” before being bought a beer by a friendly Eberhard Anheuser. The two men co-founded Anheuser-Busch, now AB InBev, the world’s largest beer company.
The campaign, conceived before the November presidential election, is meant to “celebrate the American dream”, the company said.
“While it is set in the 1800s, it’s a story we believe will resonate with today’s entrepreneurial generation — those who continue to strive for their dreams,” said Ricardo Marques, vice-president of Budweiser.
In the wake of Mr Trump’s executive order closing US borders to refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, however, Budweiser’s spotlighting of immigration drew rebukes from the right. Breitbart, the rightwing website with close ties to the White House, summarised the ad in a headline as “Ugly Americans harass hero immigrant”.
Conscious that a politically fractured nation will be tuning in to watch the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons in Sunday’s National Football League championship game, brands and their advertising agencies have been taking pains to avoid even a whiff of overt partisanship.
Advertisers are walking a political tightrope this year, said Mike Sheldon, chief executive of Deutsch, the advertising agency behind Super Bowl ads for Volkswagen and other brands. Speaking before the Budweiser backlash, he said: “Anything that even slightly references anything political takes a deft touch. Taking a side is suicidal. Alienating 50 per cent of the country would be a bad business decision.”
The Super Bowl is already advertisers’ highest-stakes day of the year. Fox, the 21st Century Fox-owned network, is said to be asking $5m for 30 seconds of commercial airtime during the broadcast, and brands spend millions more to produce and promote their campaigns. The broadcast regularly tops the list of most-watched television shows of the year, reaching more than 110m viewers.
“It’s a unique opportunity for us in that it is one of the few moments where there is a huge audience that is watching an event specifically for the advertisements,” said Anthony Casalena, chief executive of Squarespace, the website publisher, which is returning to the Super Bowl for a fourth time with an ad starring actor John Malkovich.
Celebrities, humour and cute animals will once again dominate this year’s commercial line-up, judging from plans already announced by a number of advertisers.
Alongside Justin Timberlake endorsing fruit-flavoured Bai drinks and an animated version of Procter & Gamble’s Mr Clean mascot, however, viewers can also expect to see focus on American pride, as brands attempt to tap into the flag-waving sentiment surrounding the event.
“Super Bowl Sunday is really America’s secular holiday, combining the feasting of Thanksgiving, the commercialism that has come to surround Christmas and the patriotism of the fourth of July,” said Dennis Deninger, a former production executive at ESPN, the cable sports network, who teaches sports communications at Syracuse University.
Hyundai is using its 90 seconds immediately following the game to salute US troops. The South Korean car brand has enlisted Hollywood director Peter Berg to create the ad during the game by filming footage at the stadium in Houston and at a US military base.
The message is not political, said Eric Springer, chief creative officer of Innocean, Hyundai’s agency. “We are at a very divisive time at our country and we don’t want to play into politics. It’s a relief from all the stuff going on in the world,” he said.
Baldly political ads are rare during the Super Bowl, in part because the NFL and the networks that air the game must approve commercial messages. This year Fox rejected an early version of a spot from 84 Lumber, a construction supply company, that included an image of a border wall. Mr Trump made building a wall between the US and Mexico a cornerstone of his campaign and one of his first orders after assuming office last month.
The ad that 84 Lumber will run on Sunday incorporates another of Mr Trump’s signature issues: job creation. The company will use its airtime to launch a national hiring drive for 400 management training jobs it plans to create this year.
The Super Bowl is the most prominent arena in which companies are re-evaluating their communication strategies to adjust to growing partisanship across the US.
Deep Root Analytics, a data analytics group that worked with the Republican National Committee during last year’s election, recently surveyed 6,000 registered voters about what kind of messages they want from companies.
Sixty per cent said they want to hear more about “what companies are doing to celebrate and honour what unites as Americans”, versus 32 per cent who preferred to hear about “what unites us around the world”. But the responses diverged by political party, with 77 per cent of Republicans preferring messages about American unity, compared with 48 per cent of Democrats.
Advertising executives say that Mr Trump’s election has revealed new hazards for their clients.
“More and more brands are talking about being ‘purpose led’,” said Carter Murray, worldwide chief executive of FCB, the Interpublic-owned advertising group. “In this polarised environment, these brands stand at ever more risk of being politicised one way or the other.”
Companies whose customer base spans the political spectrum may be particularly vulnerable, said Chris Sojka, chief creative officer of Madwell, a Brooklyn advertising agency. “Your products could be sold from Whole Foods to Walmart. You are speaking to every constituency,” he said.
“With our divided electorate, values that were once not contentious are now being debated, such as diversity and upward mobility,” he added.
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