As the early reveals of the 2017 Super Bowl commercials continue to roll out, some people are getting increasingly conflicted, and even irate, about the results. That's because a few of those advertisements wade into the realm of politics, from Audi's commercial promoting equal pay to Coca-Cola's multicultural "America the Beautiful" commercial highlighting the diversity that makes our country great. The reactions to these concepts have been mixed, and I can understand why. It is, after all, hard to take a political message seriously when it comes with a healthy side of product placement. But though it might seem duplicitous, or even disrespectful, to co-opt important issues in order to sell drinks or cars, it's possible to see these commercials in a completely different way. In a tumultuous political time, it's refreshing to see these companies take a stand for acceptance and diversity, and delivering such a message to such a large and politically divided audience could be impactful.
First, let's talk about the audience. The 2016 Super Bowl averaged 111.9 million viewers, which made it the third most watched broadcast in TV history, per CNN. And that number was actually a down from the record; the 2015 Super Bowl garnered about 114.4 million viewers. With an audience like that, it's no wonder that, according to Fortune, advertisers spend about $5 million, on average, for 30 seconds of airtime during the Big Game. Going viral is kind of the name of the game when it comes to these commercials, for better or for worse, which has given us such talking points that range from Nationwide's controversial 2015 "Dead Kid" commercial and Budweiser's 2014 Puppy Love commercial.
And why is going viral the important thing? Because those millions of people people aren't actually more likely to buy something they see in a Super Bowl commercial. In fact, according to a 2014 Ad Age article, about "80 percent of the ads don't sell stuff," but instead increase "brand awareness." According to Fortune in 2016, most people watch Super Bowl commercials for entertainment or to discover new brands, rather than because they're looking for new things to buy. Super Bowl advertisers are paying for entry into the pop cultural zeitgeist, according to Time, not to sell things.
Although that brand recognition can pay off eventually. Just look at the way Red Lobster sales spiked by 33 percent after Beyoncé name-dropped them in "Formation."
Now, let's consider the fact that we have just come from an incredibly controversial election and are now living under a president whose policies, words, and actions continue to divide the country drastically. In his first week in office, Donald Trump has signed executive orders to temporary ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, speed up the construction of the environmentally-unfriendly Keystone XL Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline, and banned U.S. funding to any international organizations that provide abortions. These, and many of his other actions, have been met with criticism and open protests, which only serve to divide the country further as some call out those who aren't doing enough to fight Trump's policies while others attack the liberal media for overreacting and being biased in their reporting.
Essentially, this is probably the worst time to talk about the issues if you want to remain safely neutral and entertaining — especially while trying to generate positive feelings about your product to a large audience. Opponents to these commercials have been very vocal about the fact that the last thing they want to think about during the Super Bowl is politics.
And these companies, and these commercials, don't care. They're taking the risk. They've decided to wade into this controversial political climate with stark opinions of their own, and send those opinions out to over 100 million people. In the handful of seconds that they have to make an impression, they're devoting time to also raising awareness about the gender wage gap (Audi), the role of immigrants in the foundation of America (Budweiser), the diverse races and backgrounds that make up our population (Coca-Cola and Airbnb), the importance of protecting the environment (Kia), and supporting our troops (Hyundai).
And they're using that time to the fullest.
Obviously, some people won't like that. Some people already don't like that. But keeping the Super Bowl and politics separate is an exercise in futility. The ceremony opens every year with a patriotic performance of the national anthem and "America The Beautiful." This year, former President George H.W. Bush did the coin toss. And the Patriots received a lot of scrutiny leading up to the Big Game due to their ties to Donald Trump.
Whether these commercials aired or not, the Super Bowl was already mired in politics, just like everything else has been since the lead-up to the election. One can't really place one's hand over one's heart through the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "America The Beautiful" and then reject reminders of the political issues affecting the country.
However, it's also worth noting that not every company is specifically taking a political stand. Budweiser received some backlash when it came to its commercial, but VP and Ranking Executive for Budweiser U.S., Ricardo Marques, had already released a statement to AdWeek distancing the company from the timeliness of the message:
There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country. We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because probably more than any other period in history, today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.
That, to me, is fair enough, because it's not just about whether or not the goal was to take a stand on the issues. To me, it's about the fact that over 100 million people will sit down to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, and, in between the guacamole and chips, in between the fouls and touchdowns, in between the beer and the laughter, they'll be forced to think about the state of the world. They'll be forced to think about the military, the environment, equal pay, diversity, and immigration during these commercials.
Maybe they'll remember how much of the safety and comfort that allows them to spend a Sunday watching a football game came from the combination of all of the above things, or could come from a combination of all of the above things. Maybe they'll take a moment, not to buy a car or a drink, but to simply to do research into one of these issues to see why they're so timely and important that this many Super Bowl ads devoted air time to talking about them. And maybe, just maybe, the commercial will achieve its true aim, political or not: to reach an audience.