What the 2017 Super Bowl Ads Tell us About Combining Politics with Marketing

Jen Saunders

Digital marketers, televised media and print advertising has a new challenge in 2017: communicating a brand and promoting its products in a way where consumers experience an emotional bond in a world boiling with unrest, fear for the future, and a majority loathing of our current political platform. The general rule of thumb, at least for digital marketing agencies, is to avoid politics and religion like the plague. But here are some questions to consider:

  • If politics is a proven consumer trigger for spending decisions, is it ethical (or smart) for an agency to tap it?
  • To what extent can a marketing agency use a political message in their campaigns without ostracizing one consumer group?
  • Can an agency experience any backlash from “getting political”, or can it be avoided?
  • Are we still living in a climate where it is considered unprofessional for digital marketing agencies to mix politics with strategy?

This article will examine three politically grounded Super Bowl ads to determine if drastic times create a sphere, now acceptable, for marketers to  let their political balls drop, and what the risks and rewards may bring. It will also consider if digital marketing agencies have the same free range to engage strategies with a political message.

politics in marketing can be a win or a loss

Understanding Your Market

When you took Marketing 101 the first thing you were taught was to understand your consumer market; if you don’t know what their pains and joys are, you won’t be able to communicate your product effectively. If this is still true to marketing today (and of course it is) then what do Americans care about the most in 2017? Several media publications including ‘The Washington Post’, ‘New York Times’, and ‘USA Today’ conducted surveys revealing that thenumber one thing concerning Americans todayis corruption by political leaders, with dominant percentages ranging from 60% to 82%. Now combine facts: the current president has the lowest approval rating in all of presidential history, as well as the highest percentage of voter regret from those who helped elect him. Marketers can look upon the American populace as majority consumers who care about politics the most, and who are deeply unhappy where the government stands. 

politics in ads

If It’s Good for the Goose, Is It Good for the Gander?

If mega corporations like Budweiser and Audi can use a political message to reach consumers, does this mean it signifies that advertising industry standards are shifting from the “political hush hush” rule and smaller brands can attempt the same strategy with confidence? From a practical standpoint, it all comes down to who your consumers are, and which political demographics are likely to buy the pitched product. But does this mean a boutique digital marketing agency with multiple clients can, and should, attempt it?

gender equality in marketing

Audi and the Message of Gender Equality

The luxury car company’s Super Bowl ad titled “Daughter” features a young girl competing in a soap box derby race against a group of boys. Her father narrates the ad expressing concern for her future in a world with a bleak outlook for women’s rights:“Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?” The ad, which avoided stating any direct benefit to buying an Audi, conveyed a clear message that the auto manufacturer hopes to see its vehicles driving in a world driven by people who share their gender equality values. It was deemed highly controversial, and received severe social media backlash. But did this ad really put the car-maker in a position to lose sales? Considering that most people who drive Audis are in a higher education bracket, a higher income bracket, and are dominantly liberal (according to a Quora study) there are likely very few narrow-minded misogynists within their target market. Now consider the current heads in the White House and their stance on gender equality–a cohort that has repealed equal pay for women and that even wants to make it illegal for a woman to press charges against her husband for sexual assault (and make it illegal for a woman to get an abortion, even if she is raped). The same survey administrator found the majority of low-income individuals with the lowest education levels in the country supporting politicians that fight to degrade women’s rights and gender equality. Interestingly, these are people who couldn’t afford to buy an Audi even if they wanted to. Not only did Audi take a big step forward to challenge the way people think surrounding one of its core values, the car company likely increased brand loyalty as well as encouraging non-Audi owners within their market to consider one of its vehicles as opposed to that next Mercedes.  

politics in advertising

Budweiser and the Message of Immigration

Budweiser is the best selling beer in America, consumed by liberals and conservatives alike. That said, in contrast to Audi, it seems reasonable to assume they stand to lose the most if their Super Bowl ad causes enough outrage. Titled ‘Born the Hard Way’ this ad tells the story of Budweiser founder Adolphus Busch and how he struggled as an immigrant in America. It is also a direct response to the current anti-immigration stance in the White House.  An article by Esquire revealed thatTrump supporters are boycotting Budweiserin direct response to the ad. Although it is still unclear to gauge the volume, what we do know is that roughly 43% of voters elected him, and statistically these people show they are easy to “stir up” and thrive from “calls to action” buzzing around social media that feed into their agendas. In terms of protecting their revenue, was this a bad move by Budweiser? Some think so. Others look at the fact that the beer giant is branching out appealing to different markets by acquiring larger craft breweries that appeal to more niche and liberal consumers; they picked up Blue Point, 10 Barrel, Elysian and Golden Road. Could this be an attempt to increase sales for their sister beers while risking revenue loss in their staple? It will be interesting to keep watch and see how their sales trend this year.  

google political ad

Google Home and Human Equality

This Super Bowl ad took us into the homes of Americans–a cross-section of many cultures, colors, and orientations with a clear message that ALL people have family roots, love in their hearts, and deserve to feel safe at home. The ad shows a gay-pride flag hanging above the porch of one home, and a Jewish mezuzah on the doorpost of another. We get a glimpse into the homes of white, black, Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern families all engaged in preparing a surprise party for someone. Here, Google is directly challenging the belief that one’s racial / sexual / cultural identity can make them inferior, or pose a threat to “family values”. Though Google Home is a core product, it does not make up for a beefy portion of the search engine company’s profits. It seems the chance of people boycotting the search engine is slim to none considering more than 92 percent of all Internet searches are performed on Google. Will its other products like the Pixel smartphone or Daydream View take a hit in sales due to any negative feedback from the ad?

top digital marketing agencies

What Digital Marketing Agencies Should Consider

If large corporations can experience severe consumer backlash in less than 24 hours of going public with its brand’s message, it is safe to assume that any controversial message stemming from a smaller brand is just as likely to garner the same kind of feedback, scaled to their size and demographics. Although advertising in the WWII era and during the Vietnam War rustled a few tail feathers, the Super Bowl ads of 2017 are edgier, and have already caused an uproar in a matter of hours. It looks as if politics will be implemented into more ads, at least by the heavy-hitters. Does this mean a digital marketing agency serving a cross-channel of clients should attempt it? Such strategies certainly have the potential to get a lot of viewers, but also open a can of worms.

If your digital marketing client wants an edgy strategy, present the idea but clearly express the risks. Determine (if possible) the general political views shared by your client’s consumers. Does the product or brand directly relate to a hot political topic? Or is the client wanting to take a risk by using a political message to stress one of his brand’s core values and ethical voice? Is your client prepared to deal with any uncomfortable elements in marketing that could result?

Don’t just jump into the political arena of marketing because the big boys are doing it. If your goal as a marketing CEO is to protect your own brand, your employees, and ensure stable growth while ensuring the same for your clients, there are many factors that should be taken into account before mixing your marketing campaigns with politics. At the end of the day, it is a decision each agency must make, with clients, while proceeding with caution above a safety net backup plan in the event resilient consumer walls go up.
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Jen Saunders is the Director of SEO for WEBITMD bringing more than 15 years of search marketing experience. She spent 13 years in Europe earning her PhD while looking at lots of old neat stuff. Jen enjoys simple things, like trees, sunrises, and the delicate lull of a 16th century harpsichord. Jen enjoys meditating and studies Buddhism. She is a certified master scuba diver, dolls make her nervous, and she enjoys craft beer. Jen has two cats, Chairman Thaddeus Whiskers and Lord Joffrey Gaius Pitty-Paws. They are her heirs.