Boycotts abound as Super Bowl 2017's ads take risks

The Super Bowl isn’t just a show of athletic strategy and skill. It’s also the advertising industry’s annual high-profile strut, allowing marketers to push their latest ideas and products to more than 100 million viewers. 

The risks are many: 30 seconds of airtime in this year’s game hit an average of $5 million. On top of that, marketers spend millions more on creating and perfecting their commercials. If it all goes wrong, advertisers have not only wasted millions, but face the risk of tarnishing their brands with television’s biggest crowd of the year. 

This year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials was perhaps as polarized -- and, in some cases, polarizing -- as the country’s political climate. Advertisers were largely split between two groups: those who sought to bring a timely message to their ads, and those that stuck to time-honored traditional product marketing. The commercials with messages about diversity and inclusiveness may have been more risky, but in some cases those stretches paid off, according to a survey from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. 

“It’s always risky to take on what could be perceived as a political position,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. “What was interesting was how those advertisers tried to avoid taking a stand, even as they went out and talked about very hot topics.”

The challenge for those advertisers, he said, “was to go out and say, we should come together, but without saying one side of the debate is right or wrong.”

Viewers weren’t so willing to hold off on judgement. Many of the ads with messages created social-media firestorms, even before the ads aired on television since some of the marketers released the spots early on YouTube and other outlets. 

“We may have seen a watershed year,” said Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, speaking about the ads with social messages. “There were clearly a lot more of them, and they were more front and center. They played a little bit better this year overall because of the priming effect that other elements of the game had.”

Lady Gaga’s halftime show included songs about diversity and inclusion, while the pre-game show included some patriotic messages, he noted. 

Budweiser’s (BUD) spot focuses on the challenges and benefits of immigration, at a time when President Donald Trump has clamped down on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. His administration has also created a draft order that would review the country’s H-1B visa program for highly skilled non-U.S. workers. 

Some of Mr. Trump’s millions of supporters claimed the Budweiser ad was un-American. The spot features a German immigrant in the 19th century along his harrowing journey. It’s revealed that the immigrant is Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch. Some right-leaning consumers joined in a call to boycott Budweiser because of the spot. 

Advertisers are eager to simply boost brand recognition. Take 84 Lumber, which aired an unusual commercial that featured the beginning of a mother-daughter’s migration story. Beautifully filmed, it was eye-catching partially because it offered a different type of story-telling than the typical humorous Super Bowl spot. It may come as no surprise that some Trump supporters also called for a boycott of the brand.

The Kellogg School’s advertising review ranked the spot at the bottom of its list, awarding it a “D” on a grade scale of A to F. Calkins said they considered giving it an “F” because of its faults, such as failing to link to the brand’s core message and directing consumers to its website to finish watching the ad, which he said would lose a lot of viewers. 

While the commercial may have failed on the marketing front, the 84 Lumber spot is winning in another way: getting people to talk about the brand. The buildings materials supply company was one of the most buzzed-about brands on social media during and after the game, according to marketing technology company Amobee. It found that 84 Lumber had the largest increase with digital content engagement among all Super Bowl advertisers, jumping more than 1,100 percent from Super Bowl Sunday through today, Monday. The ad generated so much traffic to 84 Lumber’s website that it crashed. 

Other ads with a message included spots from Google, Budweiser, Audi, Expedia, Coca-Cola, Airbnb and Kia, and some of them scored well from the marketing angle. Google and Audi were among the ads that earned As from the Kellogg panel. 

As for the commercials with non-political messages, Calkins said a clear winner was Mr. Clean. “The branding on that was incredibly strong,” he said. “You saw the Mr. Clean character from the beginning, right through the end, and it was funny and charming.”

Below are the Super Bowl ads sorted by grade, according to the Kellogg School’s rankings. The panel assesses ads based on marketing criteria such as attention, distinction and positioning. None of this year’s crop earned the lowest grade of F.

A-graded ads

  • Mr. Clean
  • Bai
  • Febreze
  • Google Home
  • Skittles
  • Ford
  • Audi

B-graded ads

  • KIA
  • Avocados from Mexico
  • T-Mobile
  • TurboTax
  • Bud Light
  • Tide
  • Sprite
  • Wendy’s
  • It’s a 10
  • Anheuser-Busch
  • Busch Beer
  • Coca-Cola
  • Amazon Echo
  • SoFi
  • Proactiv
  • Sprint
  • King’s Hawaiian
  • Mercedes Roadster
  • Honda

C-graded ads

  • Buick
  • Samsung
  • KFC
  • Fiji
  • Snickers
  • Airbnb
  • Persil
  • WeatherTech
  • Michelob Extra
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Wonderful Pistachios
  • Alfa Romeo
  • Nintendo Switch
  • Squarespace
  • Yellow Tail
  • Lexus
  • Mobile Strike
  • Intel
  • Wix
  • H&R Block
  • Life Wtr

D-graded ads

  • Michelin
  • GoDaddy
  • Evony
  • 84 Lumber
  • American Petroleum Institute
  • World of Tanks