A lot has happened in America over the last 50 years, but one thing has been consistent—the Super Bowl. Since that first game in 1967, football has often been a welcome distraction from some of the more serious issues in culture. But more recently, advertisers have been known to acknowledge more somber topics, with varying degrees of success.
We all remember the Nationwide ad, right? Turns out people didn't think a dead kid in an insurance ad went well with wings, beer, friends, and football. Total bummer. But sometimes, when done right, a brand can stand out, make a statement that engages the audience in a way that doesn't appear to be shamelessly capitalizing on our emotions. Today the U.S. is an incredibly divided, tense place. Emotions run high on either side of the political divide, and the first week of President Trump's administration has only ratcheted things up exponentially.
Modern marketing dictates that one of the biggest aims of any brand is to be a part of culture. But when that culture is tense, dark and divided, how should marketers react? Will any use their place in the Super Bowl to comment on or reflect the national mood?
In 2002, Budweiser was one of only a few advertisers to acknowledge 9/11, with a now-classic spot that only aired the one time. Monster.com, known for funny ads like "When I Grow Up," instead used its time as a platform for then-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani to thank Americans for their support of the city. The other notable spot from 2002 was a government anti-drug PSA (created by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide) that drew a connection between buying drugs and financially supporting terrorism.
In the first Super Bowl after the financial crisis of 2008, the most notable ad that came perhaps closest to acknowledging the challenges and uncertainty facing many watching the game. Hyundai's "Contract," created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, didn't have any bells and whistles, funny animals, or even a particularly compelling car shot. Instead, a Jeff Bridges voiceover introduced the brand's new Assurance program, telling viewers that if they lost their income in the next year, they could return the car with no impact on their credit. Simple. But as then-Advertising Age editor (and, full disclosure, my boss at the time) Jonah Bloom—now global chief strategy officer at KBS—said it was the best marketing idea in the game for confronting "the recession head-on and does something tangible to tackle its effects. Not—like Coke and Pepsi—by insisting they re-imagine our world as this happy, hopeful place, but by actually eliminating some of the fear around making a big purchase."
Eric Springer, chief creative officer of Innocean USA (Hyundai's current agency) says the Super Bowl gives brands the opportunity to unify and celebrate their belief system, and put it on stage for America and the world to see. He also thinks the smart money this year is on ads embracing entertainment over issues. "When I think back to some of the most memorable Super Bowl ads, most of them have focused on embracing a positive, pro-America identity. That being said—smart, confident marketers will opt-out and try to steer clear of the conflicting political atmosphere," says Springer. "Others, who know they can get a little PR boost will try and leverage the political conversation to help stir up the media buzz. Although people are drawn to crazy conflicts, ultimately people are looking for those 30 seconds of reprieve where they can sit back, enjoy obnoxious amounts of food and drink and have fun with the people around them."
Kevin McKeon, chief creative officer of Minneapolis-based agency Olson, says that while we’re sure to see the typical swath of light-hearted fare from snack or soda brands, the national mood will most certainly have an impact on the tone of creative coming from brands that represent American values or have their roots in the heartland of the country. "I don’t necessarily think that tone is going to be somber, but if done right, it’ll be powerful and emotional," says McKeon. "We’ll see a lot in the way of unity, inclusion—themes that bring people together at a time when the country is extremely polarized. For brands that have a lot of marketing capital in the idea of Americana, there’s a huge opportunity here to tap into how people are feeling and spin those feelings in a positive, productive direction."
That sounds a whole lot like the new Budweiser ad by Anomaly, chronicling founder Adolphus Busch's immigrant story. It may be seen by some as a statement of sorts, even though it was written long before the election, but it's about as close to the classic, almost cliche, American Dream tale.
Agency Deutsch is behind a much lighter Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl entry, that will most certainly have fans quoting it every time they crack a beer. Deutsch North America chairman and CEO Mike Sheldon says the although the game will have its fair share of predictable explosions, expensive celebrity cameos, and attempts at shock-jock-style humor, we can also probably expect a few branded pep talks.
"Some advertisers will take an emotional approach in these tense times celebrating the fact that all Americans, no matter your side of the aisle, are basically honest, decent and good people. That we’re more united than divided, despite how we might feel right now," says Sheldon. "That kind of message could really grab people’s attention. That or, of course, a farting donkey."