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Madison Avenue Hopes Super Bowl Ads Won’t Get Trumped by Politics

Analysis: Big Game. Small Ads? Madison Avenue heavyweights say they don't want their ads to play off politics or social issues in Super Bowl LII. Will the commercials be as memorable as in years past?

Donald Trump Super Bowl

Super Bowl advertisers say there’s one American product they won’t be selling this year: political dissatisfaction.

Whether marketers meant it or not, such stuff hung heavily in the air during 2017’s Big Game – and several Super Bowls prior. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for instance, last year unveiled what it had hoped would be an inspiring Budweiser ad for Super Bowl LI. It generated controversy instead.

As a young Adolphus Busch made his way to St. Louis from Germany in a one-minute Budweiser commercial, he encountered rough talk: “You don’t look like you’re from here.” “Go back home.” “You’re not wanted here.” The spot was released in the midst of the Trump administration’s effort to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Some Trump supporters called for a boycott of the beer – an American consumer staple.

Other Super Bowl pitches last year made Americans feel pressed to pick sides at a time when U.S consumers were at their most divided. Rookie sponsor 84 Lumber ran an ad that showed a Spanish-speaking mother and daughter on a harrowing journey, then directed viewers to a web video that depicted them stepping through a door in a giant wall. The girl held a handmade American flag. Audi ran a spot talking about its commitment to gender pay equity. Coca-Cola kicked things off with a pre-game ad featuring children singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages.

Many of the causes espoused were worthy ones, but with Americans polarized by so many issues, the best of advertisers’ intentions can often go awry.

“It’s dangerous territory,” says Charles Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova School of Business who regularly studies Super Bowl commercials.  Tried-and-true Super Bowl techniques like animals and celebrities are sure-fire ways of gaining success, he says, especially when the Super Bowl will already be politicized by the ongoing debate about NFL players protesting during the national anthem.

Many will try to avoid tough terrain on Sunday when Super Bowl LII airs from Minneapolis on NBC. The network has been seeking more than $5 million for Super Bowl advertising packages.

In 2018, Budweiser has opted for a commercial it thinks everyone can favor. The 60-second ad will show Super Bowl viewers how workers at an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Cartersville, Georgia, deliver water to people in disaster areas. “This is a story that will pull the interest of people from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, with different views of the world,” says Ricardo Marques, vice president of marketing for Budweiser, in an interview.

PepsiCo has prepared one Super Bowl ad featuring Cindy Crawford along with other nods to its advertising over the years.  Another commercial will show actors Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman facing down each other in a debate about Doritos and Mountain Dew.

“I think people are kind of looking for a smile these days,” says Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo’s North America Beverages division, in an interview.

To be sure, Super Bowl audiences often decide for themselves which commercials are smart and clever and which are outrageous and over the line.  In the past, however, Madison Avenue sought more than a tight grin on Super Bowl Sunday. The most memorable commercials made people think (Apple’s famous “1984” commercial) or even emotional (Coca-Cola’s popular 1980 re-air of an ad starring former Pittsburgh Steelers player “Mean” Joe Greene). E-Trade will return as a Super Bowl advertiser this year and will continue its recent efforts to lure people who see others getting rich. The slogan: “Don’t Get Mad.” Could some viewers ignore the advice?

Judging by what has already been released by the 2018 Super Bowl ad roster, however, a smile may be the best reaction most Super Bowl advertisers get. Lexus will run an ad featuring characters from Marvel’s new “Black Panther” film – turning the commercial into a movie trailer of sorts. Procter & Gamble’s Febreze will introduce viewers to a character named “Dave” whose, um, you know, doesn’t stink. Coca-Cola will advertise Diet Coke in the Super Bowl for first time in 21 years. Mars’ M&Ms has enlisted actor Danny DeVito to its cause, just as Kellogg’s will showcase former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader to sell its Pringles. “They put together a really cool group to make the commercial,” says Hader, in an interview. “It was very easy and fun.”

Online-coupon company Groupon appears to have taken the lesson about offending audiences to heart. When Groupon advertised in the Super Bowl in 2011, it sparked outrage with a commercial that many people interpreted as poking fun at suffering people in Tibet. Seven years later, the company has enlisted popular comedienne Tiffany Hadish to tell people to use Groupon to support local businesses.

The tone is likely to be different from the recent past. For the last several years, some big advertisers have leaned toward the somber and morose. Nationwide Insurance in 2015 drew derision for a commercial told from the viewpoint of a child who was already dead.

Others have latched on to causes and issues they might not have embraced so closely in the past. Sensing a shift in U.S. demographics, big marketers like General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and others have run commercials with broader concepts of who their consumers are. It is no longer uncommon to see a disabled person, a same-sex family or a family consisting of people from different races depicted in a mainstream commercial. As a result, some of the ads highlight a wider array of issues and viewpoints.

These commercials generate chatter. Ads that played up themes of equality or politics in the 2017 Super Bowl sparked much more conversation on social media than their counterparts, according to Amobee, a company that examines such conversation. Advertisers who espoused social messages like Budweiser, 84 Lumber, Audi, Expedia, Coca-Cola, Airbnb, and Kia sparked significant engagement via digital media during the game up through the next morning.

Simply put, ads need to spark a strong emotional reaction to be remembered, says Paul Pavlou, senior associate dean at Temple University’s Fox School of Business – no matter whether the response is positive or negative. “Given this knowledge, marketers should try to design Super Bowl ads to excite consumers and elicit emotional reactions,” says Pavlou, who has studied how consumers respond to Super Bowl ads at the school’s Center for Neural Decision Making.

Yet marketers who do so often walk a tightrope. America’s growing polarization means certain topics – immigration, sexual harassment, President Trump – will spark outrage, says Pavlou. “Marketers could easily exploit this political reality to make their ads provocative and create a buzz around them. At the same token, it is hard to play into these sensitive topics without taking sides and potentially alienating a large segment of the consumer population.”

It’s all enough to make people long for a time when Super Bowl ads were always fun and often filled with talking frogs.

When Bill Hader filmed Pringles’ new Super Bowl ad, the actor and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member says he just tried to enjoy the process, even ad-libbing his way through some parts of the script. The spot will show him and others “stacking” seveal varieties of Pringles chips to create new tastes, like “spicy barbecue pizza.” Hader can’t imagine any viewer taking such stuff the wrong way.

“We’re making different flavors. It has nothing to do” with anything being debated these days, he says. “If people find something sort of political in it, I’ll be surprised,” he adds. “It’s a Pringles commercial.”