Branding lessons from the “most political Super Bowl ever.”

Super Bowl LI showed just how thoroughly politics are on the minds of everyday consumers. In fact, it’s possible that the 2017 event was “the most political Super Bowl ever,” as headlines in the Boston Globe, Mashable and elsewhere proclaimed.

Several ads that aired during the Super Bowl this year tackled political issues. While many featured humor or celebrities, those that took on charged topics such as immigration and gender equality grabbed an outsize share of attention. Three of the five campaigns with the most social media engagement (84 Lumber, Audi and Budweiser) had a strong political subtext.

“If you’re not culturally relevant, you’re not relevant—period,” Lesley Bielby, chief strategy officer at ad agency Hill Holiday told the Boston Globe after the game. “And not a day goes by that we’re not having conversations with clients about the political situation. It’s impossible to ignore the shift.”

This year’s Super Bowl viewers were highly attuned to politics, and prone to interpret seemingly any message through their own hyper-polarized lenses. For brands willing to reference politics, this offered a chance to connect powerfully with customers—at the risk of making a visible misstep.

Our recent trend report The Political Consumer examined today’s politicized consumers and offered strategies for brands in the new climate. Below, we look at several key takeaways from the report, as seen in this year’s political ads.

Take a stand

Ads that took a direct stance on an issue fared well overall. Budweiser’s minute-long spot championing the story of its immigrant founder, filmed before the recent immigration tangle, was the most viewed ad of the day according to YouTube data. Although it faced backlash and a boycott threat, Budweiser stands by the results.

“If I look at the figures now, it was for sure the right call,” Ricardo Marques, a vice president of Budweiser, told the New York Times. “We’re excited. The question we’re asking ourselves is, how can we do it again next year?”

 

Airbnb’s “We Accept” ad was one of the evening’s most directly political moments. The company’s founders pledged $4 million to support refugees, joining a chorus of Silicon Valley firms that are speaking out against the recent immigration order.

 

84 Lumber also tackled immigration in a spot that Fox deemed “too controversial.” (A shortened version directed viewers to the company’s website, which crashed under the resulting traffic.) Although viewers found the ad polarizing, they seemed unclear about its message. While many interpreted the ad as favoring immigration, the company’s CEO holds different views, stating that the meaning of the message was “in the eyes of the beholder.” While 84 Lumber struggled with its message, it still earned significant attention—a logical goal for a brand kicking off a recruiting campaign.

 

Takeaway: According to Global Strategy Group, 81% of Americans believe corporations should take action to address the issues facing society. Although ads that take strong stances court controversy, they also make the strongest impressions.

Bridge the gap

As we noted in our Political Consumer report, one of the most successful ways to engage with consumers on political topics is to focus on shared values. This way, brands can address a range of opinions without alienating consumers on either side.

At the Super Bowl, several brands called for unity. An ad from Expedia, which originally aired during Donald Trump’s inauguration, emphasized the power of travel to “…bridge continents, culture, prejudice…and keep peace.” Coca Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad was a nod to American multiculturalism, featuring a diverse cast singing “America the Beautiful” in several different languages. Originally aired in 2014, the ad seemed to take on new resonance this year.

 

The NFL’s “Inside These Lines” ad seemed to be the most effective in its call for unity—through football, of course. “Inside these lines, we may have our differences,” read the voiceover. “But recognize, there’s more that unites us.”

 

Takeaway: While even unifying ads were deemed controversial in the context of Super Bowl 2017, they are still one of the safest ways to acknowledge divisive issues without taking a stance, and generated their share of conversation around brands that chose this route.

Authenticity matters

When brands take a political stand, demonstrating authentic brand values is of utmost importance. No brand demonstrated this better than Audi, which tackled the gender pay gap with its “Daughter” spot. The ad carried the tagline “Progress is for everyone” as the company declared its commitment to equal wages for men and women.

 

Many viewers loved the ad, with celebrities like Constance Zimmer and Sheryl Sandberg sharing the uplifting message online. Others, however, questioned Audi’s record on gender equality, noting the company’s male-dominated board of management and executive team. (In response, Audi highlighted aggressive hiring strategies for women and internal salary analyses.) Though the video had 12 million views on YouTube at the time of writing, likes and dislikes were nearly split equally.

Takeaway: Make sure political messaging reflects a brand’s culture. Strong stances are effective only when they arise authentically from company values.

Relevant, not political

Not all ads need to comment directly on the issues. It’s a 10 Hair Care won big laughs for its ad that began, “America, we’re in for at least four years of awful hair.” The humorous spot called on citizens to do their part to make their hair great. By drawing on comedy, the brand was able to tap into the political conversation (and still give viewers something to groan about) without taking sides or appearing to exploit the situation.

 

Takeaway: Brands can leverage the political conversation in creative ways that don’t require a strong comment on the issues.

Unintentionally political

Several companies experienced pushback for ads that might have been seen as benign in other circumstances. Google Home’s inclusion of a Spanish-speaking character was viewed by some as politically motivated, while Avocados from Mexico sparked conversations about the proposed US–Mexico border wall.

 

Takeaway: As other brands have experienced this election cycle, it is possible to be brought unintentionally into controversial conversations. Companies should stay familiar with the political climate and be prepared to stick to their values if challenged.

If nothing else, Super Bowl 2017 suggests that brands will continue to experiment with bold political statements. This year, companies have shown a willingness to engage with liberal policies and even spearhead activism, perhaps seeking to align themselves with a progressive base of millennial and gen Z consumers. Watch to see how Super Bowl hype plays out for these brands in the long run.