Super Bowl commercials 2017: Political pitfalls abound

Last Updated Feb 3, 2017 10:49 AM EST

There’s a good reason why Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest day of the year for advertisers: It’s the only annual TV event where more than 100 million viewers are eager to watch the commercials. 

The scrutiny that Super Bowl commercials get raises the stakes for advertisers, which in 2017 are each shelling out an average of $5 million to secure air time during the game. Marketers spend millions more on production, hiring top-notch directors and celebrities, and running promotions leading up to the game, which will air Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET on Fox. 

Despite advertisers’ hard work to on their marketing messages -- which typically boil down to “buy our product” -- this year’s batch of ads may get viewed through an unintentional lens: politics. 

Super Bowl ads that carry a political message aren’t unheard of, such as 2016’s Bud Light ad with Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen as mock-political candidates. Yet this year’s crop may not be able to sidestep the filter of partisan politics even when their companies are aiming for a lighter, humorous message. That’s because of the Trump administration’s policies on everything from trade to immigration, which affect the businesses of many top Super Bowl marketers. 

#AvoSecrets | Avocados From Mexico | Big Game 2017 Commercial | Secret Society by Avocados From Mexico on YouTube

Take Avocados From Mexico, a third-time Super Bowl advertiser, whose message about the health value of avocados appears to be politics-free. Yet given negative rhetoric from President Donald Trump about Mexican trade, including his threat of placing a hefty tariff on Mexican imports, the commercial’s very existence is likely to raise questions from American viewers.

“Will they get more attention given that everything that’s happened in the last week, and with some senators commenting on the price of guacamole?” said Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. “Does that create an extra focus on an ad for avocados?”

As Marci suggests, the attention may turn into a positive for Avocados From Mexico, although the company noted that its reason for securing time in the game isn’t related to current political debate over Mexican imports. 

“Those millions and millions of viewers will be watching the game with beer, chips and with guacamole. It’s a perfect day to show our message,” said Avocados From Mexico President Alvaro Luque. He added that the commercial has been in the works for about six months, or well before Mr. Trump’s victory in the November elections.

The goal, he said, is “to focus on positiveness and not get distracted by the politics.”

Budweiser 2017 Super Bowl Commercial | “Born The Hard Way” by BudweiserCanada on YouTube

It’s unlikely that the commercials that will air on Sunday were designed with a political message in mind, of course. Typically, companies spend months tailoring their game-day messages, which sometimes represent the continuation of a long-running marketing campaign. 

Hulu will air its first ad for an original series during the Super Bowl with a spot that some may see as politically suggestive, given the Trump administration’s vows to cut contraceptive benefits for women and overturn Roe v. Wade. The spot will advertise “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a series based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel about a dystopian future where women have no rights under an American fundamentalist theocracy. 

My Name is Offred (Official) • The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu by Hulu on YouTube

Budweiser (BUD) is another advertiser whose ad may spark a political discussion, given its spot focuses on the challenges and benefits of immigration. Mr. Trump has clamped down on immigration from seven majority Muslim countries, and his administration has created a draft order that would review the country’s H-1B visa program for highly skilled non-U.S. workers. 

The Budweiser spot functions as a mini-movie about the travails and opportunities of a German immigrant during the 19th century. After a harrowing trip across the ocean, he lands in a crowded U.S. city only to hear cries of “Go back home!” 

Eventually he finds a kindred spirit in St. Louis, and over a beer, they strike up a friendship and a plan to brew a new type of beer. The immigrant is revealed to be Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch. 

Ahead of the commercial’s airing on Sunday, some Trump supporters have already created a boycott in response to the ad with the hashtag #boycottbudweiser. “Budweiser needs to bring the Clydesdales back & keep their politics to themselves!” one user wrote on Twitter. One person’s American dream, it seems, is another person’s anti-American message. 

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“We try to stay pretty apolitical,” said Squarespace Chief Executive Anthony Casalena. “We’re a platform used by so many different people, with different ideas and from different countries. We are proponents of free speech and don’t want to get into value judgements.”

Squarespace’s Super Bowl commercial features actor John Malkovich as he tries to secure a domain name, only to find that somebody else has secured the address. Growing increasingly frustrated, he starts swearing at JohnMalkovich.com, a website that shows a fisherman holding his catch. “How the f-- can you be John Malkovich?” he yells. 

“It’s a serious kind of funny, not slapstick,” Casalena said. “That thoughtful humor is where we want to be as a brand.”

Humor tends to be a defining characteristic of Super Bowl ads, partly because the game is typically a social event for friends and family, when serious messages can be viewed as inappropriate or too dark. Research is also indicating that humor helps prod viewers to tweet or talk about ads, which boosts a commercial’s reach far beyond the game-night airing. 

“Advertising is trying to engage people so you lay down a memory that influences future behavior,” said Nielsen’s Marci, who is applying neuroscience to consumer receptiveness toward commercial messages. “People smiled more at the ads that were tweeted more, and that makes a lot of sense.”

Said Marci: “Facial expressions create a social signal, and if an ad generates a smile, that’s something you want to share.”