Super Bowl as a Politics-Free Zone? With Trump, Lady Gaga and Some Ads, That’s Doubtful

Budweiser Super Bowl commercial
Screenshot courtesy of Budweiser YouTube channel

Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, having just had an extended hospital stay, are scheduled to do the coin toss at this year’s Super Bowl, and the way things are going, that may be the most apolitical moment of the event.

In a hyper-partisan atmosphere, it seems a sure bet that some sort of red-blue divide will emerge in the theatrics and staging surrounding the game, despite New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady’s efforts to avoid politics at a press conference earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Budweiser unveiled a one-minute Super Bowl spot, “Born the Hard Way,” which depicts the journey of its founder, Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant to the United States. He’s told, “You don’t look like you are from around here,” and hears shouts of “Go back home” and “You’re not wanted here.”

The spot landed in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order placing restrictions on immigration and refugee entry, and quickly triggered social media reaction that alternated between praise for highlighting the issue, to anger at the brand for appearing to take a side.

In fact, Marcel Marcondes, vice president of marketing for Anheuser-Busch, said in a statement that the spot “highlights the ambition of our founder and his unrelenting pursuit of the American dream. This is a story about our heritage and the uncompromising commitment that goes into brewing our beer. It’s an idea we’ve been developing along with our creative agency for nearly a year. “

Still, Budweiser appears to have been entirely aware that they were venturing in to a polarized debate.

“We believe beer should be bipartisan, and did not set out to create a piece of political commentary; however we recognize that you can’t reference the American Dream today without being part of the conversation,” Marcondes added.

Kia Motors on Wednesday unveiled a humorous spot with an environmental theme, “Hero’s Journey,” featuring Melissa McCarthy as an eco-warrior on a mission to save the planet. It, too, takes no political stand. It’s absurdist and adventurous.

But at a time when the motives of the media and major corporations are under nonstop scrutiny, brands have to be aware of the potential for backlash.

David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC, said that there is a certain risk among advertisers to wade into partisan issues — particularly the Super Bowl.

“You need to be careful,” Carter said. “If it is a corporate principle of yours and it is something you are willing to make a statement about, I don’t have a problem with it.” But even if the timing is coincidental, “you have to play it in as measured a capacity as possible,” as it is likely that controversy over an ad will become the story.

Carter said that even when sponsors set out to do something non-partisan, “you can have a situation where perceptions become reality.”

Even when sponsors, athletes, or other personalities insist their motives are non-partisan, their messages may not be interpreted that way. That was the case in 2012, when Clint Eastwood appeared in a Super Bowl spot for Chrysler, “It’s Halftime in America,” that touted Detroit’s comeback. A number of conservatives saw the spot as supportive of President Barack Obama and the auto bailout, even as Eastwood and Chrysler insisted that it was non-partisan.

“These are always left to interpretation to whoever the audience is and to whoever it may be,” Carter said.

Budweiser’s spot, in fact, can be viewed a number of ways. It showed the scorn that Busch faced coming to the United States — but it also was made clear that he was a legal immigrant. Some who support Trump’s policies noted that on social media.

The timing of spots like Budweiser’s, coming in the midst of a polarizing debate, may be more common in the future. Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Entertainment Group, said that “these are tricky times for brands. There is so much cultural pressure on them to take a stand.”

She says that younger audiences are more attuned to holding brands to a “value standard,” conscious of where they spend their money. “Trying to be generic or silent is increasingly going to create more problems for brands,” she said.

And as much as many fans may look to the game as a day-long respite from what’s happening in Washington, the Super Bowl won’t be the place.

Trump himself will be interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, in a pre-taped appearance that continues a Super Bowl tradition of pre-game one-on-ones with the commander-in-chief. Lady Gaga, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton and has been a Trump critic, is performing the Super Bowl halftime show, so it wouldn’t be surprising if she made some kind of statement during her gig.

“It was Howard Cosell who coined the phrase, ‘Sports is that sandbox of life,'” Carter said. “They look to sports as a break from the everyday grind. As chaos and noise leaps into a favorite hobby I think the industry has to take great notice, because it turns off a lot of people.”