Donald Trump’s Election Puts Super Bowl Advertisers on Tricky Playing Field

dean bertoncelj / Shutterstock

Super Bowl advertisers like to aim for the funny bone. If they aren’t careful this year, they may end up smacking potential customers in the face.

As Madison Avenue prepares to pitch soda, beer and gadgets to hundreds of millions of viewers expected to watch Fox’s February 5th broadcast of Super Bowl LI, its residents must tread carefully to the goal line. Even though this annual gridiron classic unites Americans like few media properties can in an age of splintering media usage, the viewership is more divided than ever, marketing experts argue, and audiences remain raw and polarized after the recent election of Donald J. Trump to the office of U.S. President.

“Cutting through the noise is a difficult task for these advertisers, but they’ve got to be a little more careful in terms of taking a position on one issue, because they will have an equal number of people on the other side,” said Darrin Duber-Smith, who teaches marketing at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “America has not been this divided in modern memory. I think it’s like the rules at the bar: Don’t talk religion and politics.”

Could that mean a spate of toned-down commercials come Game Day? Already, GoDaddy, a web-services provider that has run mischievous ads in the past, has said it intends to run a spot talking about the power of the Internet.  Fox sent one advertiser, building-supply company  84 Lumber, back to the drawing board when its proposed commercial was spotted depicting a wall that blocked people – a potential reference to the President-elect’s desire to build a stronger barrier on the U.S. border with Mexico. Anheuser-Busch has indicated that it will do away with celebrities and frat-boy humor in favor of ads that burnish the core qualities of brews like Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. The company did not craft its Super Bowl ads with recent election results in mind, said Marcel Marcondes, vice president of marketing at Anheuser-Busch. But one ad, for flagship beer Budweiser, is expected to tell the tale of co-founder Adolphus Busch, and link his story to a quest for the American Dream.

Not everyone is minding the rules. Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean, a first-time entrant to Super Bowl advertising, is teasing its appearance online with a short video that tells viewers its famous bald-headed character is about to “get dirty.”

Millions of dollars are at stake. Fox is seeking more than $5 million for a 30-second ad berth in this year’s pigskin championship – and typically tries to sell larger packages that would generate even more revenue. Other advertisers on board this year include Kia, Pepsi, Intel, Lexus and Avocados from Mexico.

You’d think most Super Bowl marketers would play it safe.  An influx over the years of freshmen advertisers with little national marketing experience, however, raised eyebrows. Last year, 23% of the ad roster for Super Bowl 50  – 10 in all – were first-timers, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending.  In 2015, 28% of the advertisers put a cleat on the field for the first time.

Many of these companies are relative unknowns and eager to make a big splash. To accomplish that feat, they put a good chunk of their annual marketing budget into buying a commercial, then worry less about production values and creative direction.  Last year, Dollar Shave Club ran a spot that looked like it was made for about a dollar, featuring a sassy razor talking to a guy in the shower. Others stumble by running commercials that prove offensive, such as a 2011 spot from Groupon, then a new Super Bowl supporter, that appeared to poke fun at conditions in Tibet.

Marketers must communicate with everyone tuned into the game, not just a sub-section of the viewership. said Omer Shai, chief marketing officer of Wix, a digital-services company that is entering its third spin as a Super Bowl advertiser. “Everybody needs to like it,” he said.

Getting people to do so will be a tougher task in 2017. Studies of conversations across thousands of digital sites conducted by Amobee, a company that helps advertisers plan and allocate digital pitches, found consumers talking more about America being divided than being unified, according to Jonathan Cohen, the company’s principal brand analyst. “Brands have to recognize the impact his election is having on the national conversation,” he said.

Making matters worse, Super Bowl ads in the last few years have lost some of their joy. Many marketers have hitched their ads to causes.  In 2015, advertisers including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Nissan and the NFL cautioned viewers about everything from online bullying to spousal abuse. Last year, viewers had to watch an ad for a remedy for opioid-induced constipation, a reminder that many Americans are grappling with painkiller addictions. SodaStream, an upstart that sold a make-your-own-soda kit, debuted in 2013 with an ad that pointed out how buying plastic soda bottles hurt the environment.

Many Americans find these ads tiresome, suggested Duber Smith: “I’m trying to watch the damn game, and I’m tired of being preached to.”

To score a touchdown, advertisers should try ads that push consumers to look to the horizon, said Michael Goldberg, an ad-industry veteran who is chief executive of Zimmerman Advertising, an ad agency owned by Omnicom Group. “Someone has to go, ‘Enough,’” he said. “That’s going to be the social currency this year – aligning a brand with not just general unification, but addressing the issue and trying to cap it.”

Chrysler has had success with this technique in the past. As the nation tried to drag itself out of a massive recession late last decade, the automaker ran dynamic two-minute spots that urged viewers to help the country get back on its feet. A 2012 ad featured rapper Eminem driving a Chrysler 200 through Detroit. The ad was meant to show the Motor City and the auto industry in revival mode after tough times. The following year, Chrysler ran an even more memorable spot featuring actor Clint Eastwood telling viewers that it was “halftime in America,” and that the moment had come to push ahead.

The tradition stretches back even farther. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Anheuser-Busch used a 2002 Super Bowl commercial to show its stately Clydesdales paying tribute to New York City.

In 2017, knitting the American public back together might require more than even those famous horses.