Super Bowl 2017 ads navigate fraught political landscape

Meg James
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times

Super Bowl Sunday traditionally has been a day for Americans to come together in a celebration of friends, football and big-ticket TV commercials.

This year, advertising executives are gingerly navigating a cultural divide. What will more than 100 million Americans who tune into the game find entertaining — not off-putting? In the era of President Trump, even a commercial about avocados from Mexico, which is set to run in the game’s first half, can be a reminder of the fraught political landscape that has forced advertisers to tread cautiously.

Beer company Anheuser-Busch could provide the test case. For nearly a year, it has planned a cinematic commercial for Budweiser as a tribute to the company’s immigrant founder, Adolphus Busch, who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1857. Shot in October — weeks before the election — the ad depicts Busch’s arrival in New Orleans, where two men hiss at him: “You are not wanted here” and “Go back home.”

Anheuser-Busch has said it wanted the commercial to be relevant — but executives could not have envisioned that Trump would sign an executive order to temporarily suspend travel for some people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries just a week before the Super Bowl. Already some conservatives have complained the immigration theme was too political.

The Mexican avocado ad, on behalf of Mexico avocado producers, avoids politics altogether and instead has comedian Jon Lovitz’s head swirling against a green backdrop. But the ad could remind football fans that Trump wants to slap a tariff on Mexican products.

“The country is so split politically right now,” said Russell S. Winer, a marketing professor at New York University. “Marketers are spending at least $5 million just to be in the Super Bowl — and they don’t want their messages to alienate anyone.”

The stakes were high even without the political tumult. Fox Broadcasting, which is televising Super Bowl LI, is charging a record of nearly $5 million for each 30-second spot — more than double the rate a decade ago. That means Anheuser-Busch is paying Fox nearly $10 million to run its minute-long Budweiser commercial.

And that’s just to cover the air time; marketers behind the big-budget ads typically spend another $3 million to $5 million to produce what they hope will become a mini-masterpiece.  For some 60-second ads, the budgets can reach $15 million.

“If you are not creating something that transcends the 50 other ads in the Super Bowl, then you are wasting your money,” said Jason Sperling, executive creative director of the Santa Monica ad agency RPA, which designs ads for American Honda Motor Co. 

Advertisers, he said, try to read the national mood so commercials feel topical. Concepts for this year’s Super Bowl typically were approved last summer — when most political observers predicted that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was about to become the first female president.

“None of us knew that we would be thrown into this much chaos and divisiveness,” Sperling said. “There are benefits and downsides to taking risks. Either the ad feels too light and airy, or it feels like it 100% dialed in.”

Five years ago, Chrysler’s “It’s Half Time in America,” featuring Clint Eastwood, was intended to show how the auto industry was making a comeback after the Great Recession. But its stark scenes, and a mention of the lost jobs in Detroit, sparked complaints that the ad was too dark.

Tone and imagery can make a difference. This year, Fox demanded modifications for a commercial from first-time Super Bowl advertiser 84 Lumber, a Pennsylvania building supplies firm. Initially, the company submitted renderings for the ad with a border wall, said one person familiar with the process who was not authorized to publicly discuss it. After Fox objected, the wall was removed from the ad, which is scheduled to run before half-time. (The NFL also has veto power over the content of the ads).

Brent McGoldrick, chief executive of Deep Root Analytics, said there is a definite chord that advertisers can strike. The Arlington, Va.- company helped the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign reach disaffected Democrats in Rust Belt states.

“We’re in this national moment right now — it’s all about Americanism,”  McGoldrick said. “The Super Bowl is a great platform for brands to provide ‘a teachable moment.’ But their messages have to speak to shared values, without being preachy.”

Americanism most certainly will be on display. Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser commercial, titled “Born the Hard Way,” was meant “to highlight the ambition of our founder, Adolphus Busch, and his unrelenting pursuit of the American dream,” said Marcel Marcondes, vice president of marketing, in a statement.

Having big dreams will be a familiar theme. In its commercial for the Honda CR-V, ad agency RPA used computer generation to bring to life old school yearbook photos of real-life celebrities, including basketball great Magic Johnson, actor Steve Carell and ABC’s late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel, who clutches a clarinet in his school photo. “All dreams are within reach,” intones Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis.

“We are walking a tight-rope: We want to get people to smile and also well up with tears — all in 60 seconds,” Sperling said. “The work we have been doing is bit more aspirational.”

Figuring out the best approach often comes down to “the use of humor — or an emotional pull,” said David Angelo, chairman of the El Segundo agency David & Goliath, which does work for Kia, the South Korean auto maker.

“When we sit down to plan these things we ask ourselves: “Where are we in the world right now?” Angelo said. “2016 was a year full of high emotion and negativity.  And in some cases, it was extremely toxic.”

His firm typically showcases celebrities, and this year it turned to comedian Melissa McCarthy to promote Kia’s newly launched cross-over vehicle, the Niro. “The ad was created at the height of the election cycle, back in the summer when things were really escalated,” Angelo said.

Like chips and dip, comedy has long been a Super Bowl staple. “Nothing is better than humor — it’s perfect for this vehicle and where we are in the world right now,” Angelo said.

One of the most celebrated Super Bowl spots ever, the 1979 ad for Coca-Cola featuring Pittsburgh Steeler “Mean” Joe Greene, tapped people’s emotion, but comedy is more in vogue today.

“Comedy is a good way to cut across the political spectrum,” Winer said. “And you’ll see a lot of actors this year, and a lot of diversity — and not just racial diversity — but ads with women too.”

Some firms are driven by a desire to stand out in a field dominated by deep-pocketed brands. For example, Mars Inc.’s Snickers candy is planning a live commercial to run after half-time. “You can’t be afraid to take risks,” said Allison Miazga-Bedrick, Snickers brand director.

For smaller companies, the investment can be huge. Los Angeles-based Wonderful Co., which markets pomegranate juice, pistachios and Fiji water, decided to advertise late in the process and bought two 15-second spots last month. Last year, it didn’t advertise its pistachios because of a meager crop caused by the drought, but this season’s yield was more plentiful. Wonderful is using an ad that wasn’t created specifically for the Super Bowl, but it hopes that its computer-generated elephant, Ernie (voiced by WWE star John Cena), will effectively promote the health benefits of its nuts.

“We’ve been holding this commercial back to see if there was an opportunity to make Ernie a more recognizable creature,” said Michael Perdigao, president of the company’s in-house agency. “There is a lot of pressure but we are building brand awareness and the Super Bowl can give you wings.” 

Torrance-based King’s Hawaiian sweet bread bakery is making its first foray into the Super Bowl after two years of buying time in the Oscar telecast. This spring, the company is rolling out a new product, barbecue sauce.

“We felt the need to make a splash,” said Erick Dickens, vice president of marketing for King’s Hawaiian. “We wanted our commercial to be feel-good, family-friendly and heart-warming. In divided times, this is a message for everyone.”

meg.james@latimes.com

@MegJamesLAT

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