Every year during the Super Bowl, millions of Americans, nachos in hand, will groan at the TV screen, sometimes because their favored team fumbles, and other times because the commercial was too mawkish, or dumb, or, and this is becoming the new reality, because it pushes their political buttons.
The Super Bowl is prime real estate for advertisers, one of the few appointment viewing opportunities in this era of binge watching and Netflix. Advertisers pay a hefty fee for all those eyeballs, at least $5 million for 30 seconds, according to Variety. So there’s a lot riding on these ads, and there’s always gallons of ink spilled – or pixels used – in analyzing these ads.
For Super Bowl LI there will be an immigration-based commercial from Budweiser that has been creating controversy for weeks. The ad tells the fictionalized story of Budweiser co-founder Adolphus Busch. Good old Adolphus was a real person who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1857. In the minute-long ad, titled “Born the Hard Way,” a stranger in a bar says, “You don’t look like you’re from around here” to Busch. Then we see Busch’s boat journey to come to America. “Why leave Germany?” a fellow traveler asks. “I want to brew beer,” Busch says.
But the ad will be airing little more than a week after President Trump issued the contentious executive order banning people from seven predominantly-Muslim countries, an order that has polarized Americans, to say the least, and led to days of protests. Whether it was meant to be specific to the moment is irrelevant. The ad is now part of a political brush fire.
The company has just put the ad out there, insisting there’s no correlation with anything happening in the country. A week ago company a VP for Budweiser, Ricardo Marques told AdWeek that the ad was relevant because it is “a universal story.”
Maybe, but it’s being seen through the prism of what’s happening in the moment. Maybe Marques was trying to be diplomatic by denying what’s happening now. And, surely, when the ad was on the drawing board months ago, the company couldn’t have known that Trump would win and impose a controversial immigration ban. Then again, the people calling the shots at Budweiser surely know how politically charged the nation is, and how, during the election season, renaming its product “America,” which should be an uncontroversial name – in America, anyway – would unleash the furies, mainly on the left. That’s because conservative America more often lays claim to overt patriotism. Budweiser knows this.
Now the pro-immigrant – at least pro Adolphus Busch – Super Bowl commercial is being cheered and jeered along partisan lines, with left-leaners seeing it as a repudiation of Trumpism, right-leaners claiming it’s bashing Trump and promising there will be hell to pay. Even though the ad was planned before the travel ban, the reactions couldn’t have been a surprise. We’re just that polarized. We’re that much on edge.
Today, a company not taking a stand can sometimes be seen as taking a stand. In the age of social media, a company’s activities, investments, even hiring practices, attract notice. And with an American populace more politically polarized than ever, everything is political. It would seem that, in this politically and socially charged American landscape, it really isn’t possible for a marketer would to play it safe, unless they fill every ad with fluffy, cavorting puppies.
What’s more important is knowing who the core customers are and, to be frank about it, who a company can afford to tick off.
The ride-sharing service Uber recently came under attack after it chose not to stand with New York taxi drivers who went on strike to support immigrants on the day Trump’s ban came down. That comes on top of news of Uber’s CEO, who was attacked by foes of Trump for being on the President’s economic advisory board. Critics said it looked like he was colluding with Trump. Maybe he was, or maybe he just wanted to be close to the President, no matter who it is. This one-two punch has led to more than 200,000 Uber users to delete their accounts.
Remember, Uber technically has not taken a political stand. And that’s the problem for ride-sharers, who are generally urban and well-educated. And because of that they’re likely to know or have come in contact with immigrants. By not taking a stand – and worse, looking opportunistic – Uber ticked off its core customers. Now Uber is scrambling to win them back by offering to pay lost wages to immigrants due to Trump’s executive order.
A company can work outrage to its advantage. Three Super Bowls ago, General Mills brought back a biracial family in a rather cute ad. This was six months after the same family drew outrage on social media, and, predictably, a boycott. The company wouldn’t have brought the ad back if the backlash had hurt them. Turns out, Americans generally love the commercial. And we can assume that General Mills did its homework and made a decision that the customers it stood to lose were outweighed by the goodwill it generated.
Similarly, Coke’s multilingual Super Bowl commercial three years ago drew the ire of xenophobes, maybe some of the same people dumping hate on Budweiser now. The company answered this with a statement, saying “All those in the commercial were Americans.”
In other words, suck it up, haters.
As I’ve written about before, Chick-fil-A waded into the choppy waters of the same-sex marriage debate, coming out firmly against marriage. And it appears to have hurt the company not at all. I disagreed with their stance on principle but not on strategy. A few of my LGBT friends said they wished they actually patronized Chick-fil-A, so that they could boycott it.
Let’s be clear: Coke and General Mills weren’t trying to make a social statement for the sake of enlightening the racists of the world. Chick-fil-A is not a company built to spread a certain version of Christian morality. Their businesses are selling product and increasing market share. They made a strategic decision to gain as much attention to their brand as possible, knowing that some attention would be negative, and calculating that the negative attention would not hurt them at all.
What should Budweiser do at this point? Since they’ve already waded into the political discourse, they may as well own it. They should definitely not apologize, because they have nothing to apologize for. Perhaps a letter acknowledging the controversy, like Coke’s statement, and taking a strong (strategic) pro-immigrant stance.
If they’re savvy, and I believe they are, they’ll realize they can’t be wishy-washy. Because in the end, someone’s going to threaten to punish them. What matters is knowing who their customers are, how many they can afford to lose and how many they can stand to gain. After all every controversy, even a manufactured controversy, is a beautiful opportunity.