Conventional wisdom has always held that marketers should steer well clear of politics, and some won’t hesitate to repeat the warning. The downside risks were typically envisioned with horror and quite viscerally. Nothing could be worse than becoming a political punching bag for politicians and the media. Why would anyone want to offer themselves up as a target for ire and retaliation, or risk becoming a social pariah? It would be nothing short of professional suicide, let alone a source of constant embarrassment among friends and acquaintances.
And yet, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, a growing number of large, high-profile companies have eschewed conventional wisdom and intentionally launched marketing campaigns that boldly supported particular political views. A few have even aired nothing short of bold-faced, direct assaults against specific and highly charged political policies.
So, what the heck is going on? Is marketing becoming more political, or is this merely a blip on the radar screen?
Seven Political Super Bowl Ads
It has been almost six months since a surprising set of seven political Super Bowl ads ran on February 5, 2017. What was the result? Did conventional wisdom hold true? Were these companies summarily punished for their brash and foolish ventures into waters they had no business sailing in the first place?
The seven ads are summarized in the table. The first three supported diversity, the next two addressed immigration and inclusivity, and the last two were about gender equality and environmental protection.
2017 Super Bowl Ads with Political Messages
|Brand||Message, Means||Political Message Category|
|Airbnb||“We all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept. We accept.” Diverse set of face image transitions.||Diversity|
|Google Home||“Home by you. Help by Google.” Coming home scenarios for a wide range of ethnic groups. Country Roads song whistled in background.||Diversity|
|Coke||America the Beautiful sung in multiple languages with ethnically diverse video clips.||Diversity|
|Budweiser||“Born the hard way.” Adolphus Busch’s journey from Germany to St. Louis and meeting Eberhard Anheuser.||Immigration,
|84 Lumber||“The will to succeed is always welcome here.” Mexican migrant mother and daughter’s treacherous journey to US border, encounter wall, then find large door and enter country.||Immigration,
|Audi||“Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work. Progress is for everyone.” Daughter at soap box derby. Voiceover by her father.||Gender Equality,
|Kia Niro||“It’s hard to be an eco-warrior, but it’s easy to drive like one.” Sequence of slapstick spoofs featuring Melissa McCarthy.||Environmental
From a rearview mirror perspective, the Airbnb Super Bowl ad “We Accept” was prescient. Several weeks after the ad ran, an Airbnb host canceled a guest’s reservation because, as the host’s rejection text explained: “One word says it all. Asian.” After Airbnb conducted their investigation, the offending host was permanently banned. Then just recently, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing issued a statement stating the host had agreed to complete a number of self-education steps, perform community service, report rental data to the department for four years, and pay a $5,000 fine.
The Airbnb ad is an example of getting out ahead of a serious company issue. While Airbnb has a non-discrimination policy and permanently barred the host after their investigation, Airbnb’s ad strongly reinforced that it was serious about nondiscrimination and respect, and was willing to take a daring public stand on the issue—not after the fact, but before. Even though the company may still have a tough road ahead in terms of ensuring nondiscrimination by its hosts, its marketing program is an integral part of the solution, not just a revenue-enhancer or company image cheerleader.
Although not as blatant as the Airbnb ad, the Google Home ad stood out because it was clearly a diversity-friendly ad. The current administration’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is often interpreted as a belated need to rebalance the American social agenda by paying more attention to the interests and values of majority white Americans. The Google Home ad was readily interpreted as opposing this movement, and social media was quick to point it out.
By most accounts, Google Home is quickly gaining ground on Amazon’s Alexa. It is estimated that Google Home’s brand/product recognition is now at 80% of Alexa’s and its market share is around 24% even though it was only launched last November. We could find no indication that their diversity ad created financial or competitive problems for them. Indeed, their current, post-Super Bowl ad also features a racially mixed family. In other words, they have not shifted away from their diversity-friendly theme.
Singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages was regarded by some as an affront to the current administration’s emphasis on the white middleclass. Social media quickly responded with comments like: “Sing it in English” and “Learn English … this is America.”
Despite some initial negative attention, the ad received an overwhelmingly positive rating (93%). Coke’s stock price (KO) initially rose after the Super Bowl ad, and then took a hit a few days later starting on February 9 when analysts were disappointed with fourth quarter earnings results. As can be seen in the chart, however, Coke’s stock price bounced back quickly. Our review of their financials provides no hint that Coke’s diversity message harmed its sales or image.
The Budweiser ad celebrating immigration was definitely controversial. It aired at a time when the new Trump administration was trying to restrict immigration. The Twitter hashtag #BoycottBudweiser immediately circulated on social media protesting the pro-immigration message. Budweiser explained their ad celebrated the pursuit of the American Dream. This response reinforced the administration’s “America First” theme, albeit with a different slant.
Budweiser does not seem to have suffered financially from its “Born the Hard Way” ad. Its stock price remained strong (see chart) and so far its 2017 year-over-year growth in revenue, profit and earnings per share are all quite impressive (7%, 73%, 45% respectively). Although its leading brands in the US are slowly losing share to craft and international beer brands, it is still the dominant player with a market share around 45%.
The 90-second 84 Lumber ad about a migrant mother and daughter encountering a US border wall was probably the most controversial of the seven political Super Bowl ads. It seemed to most viewers to be a protest against President Trump’s “Mexico Wall” program. The ad strategy then became confusing when the owner and CEO said she was “pro-Trump” and designed the ad to attract young new employees to her firm.
It was hard for most experts to justify the estimated $15 million price tag. While 84 Lumber is a $2.4 billion company, building supply margins are low and the ad purportedly targeted new employees rather than new customers, greater share of wallet or other typical marketing objectives.
Despite the ad’s divergence from marketing norms, the owner still seems quite pleased with the outcome. 84 Lumber is no longer a relatively unknown company. In addition to the 115 million Super Bowl viewers, another 4.7 million people viewed the full ad on the company website. There were 174,000 social interactions with the ad on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and iSpot, and most of these were positive. New stores were opened in the first quarter of 2017, new people continue to be hired, and it was again named a Forbes’ Best Midsize Employer in 2017.
The “Daughter” ad by Audi may be the second-most contentious Super Bowl ad of 2017. There were more negative than positive comments about the ad on YouTube. Some judged Audi as hypocritical since they have no women on their board and only two women on their US executive team. Then Audi was criticized for merely comparing male and female median pay levels rather than controlling for job differences, which reduces the pay gap. Audi calmly responded to these criticisms simply by reinforcing their central message of the importance of reducing the gender pay gap.
Despite what may seem to be considerable negative feedback, Audi of America’s year-to-year sales through June were up 6.2%. In the aggregate, it seems that Audi’s US sales were not harmed at all by the ad. Audi consistently tries to differentiate itself from the other luxury car brands. Their persistent motivation is “… to challenge ourselves, rewrite the rules from time to time and always fuel our pioneering spirit.” They clearly accomplished this with their Super Bowl ad.
The most humorous of the seven political Super Bowl ads was Kia’s “eco-warrior” commercial. The simple act of featuring Melissa McCarthy was an affront to the Trump administration, given her “Spicy” series of Sean Spicer skits on Saturday Night Live. Further it implicitly opposed the administration’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which indeed took place later in June.
From a unit sales perspective, Kia’s political ad does not seem to have had a negative impact on company performance in the US. Overall unit sales grew steadily through May (see chart). The Super Bowl ad targeted Kia’s new Nitro model, and its unit sales passed Kia’s Sorento model by June. All in, it seems that Kia’s political ad did not have a negative impact on sales.
What general conclusions can we make from this review of the political Super Bowl ads? First, we can safely say political ads are a viable avenue for creating brand connections with customers. The assertion that “it is suicide for a brand to be political” is now empirically false. It is not a sure way to kill your brand.
The precursor to political ads can be broadly referenced as social justice ads. Perhaps the two most famous of this type addressed women’s issues. Unilever’s Dove brand launched “Campaign for real beauty” in 2004 based on research that the vast majority of women avoid describing themselves as beautiful. Then, in 2014, P&G’s Always brand targeted “like a girl” negative stereotypes (e.g., throw like a girl, run like a girl) based on research showing that female self-esteem drops dramatically during puberty. The success of these two major brand campaigns is now legend, and they are leading examples of what is meant by “brand purpose.”
Which leads to the second conclusion: If one of these two brand purpose campaigns—Dove or Always—had aired during this year’s Super Bowl, there is a good chance they would be on the list of political ads. They are multiracial, they challenge the stereotypical rural white male frame of reference regarding women, and they do not align with the current administration’s top priorities. In other words, having “brand purpose” can easily be interpreted as being political. Indeed, it is probably dangerous for a brand to engage in brand purpose marketing without anticipating political ramifications.
Third, some form of backlash is to be expected from any political or “purpose-full” advertising, especially for a prominent name brand. But this is not an overwhelmingly bad thing. While conventional wisdom assumes all negative coverage is bad, today it is wiser to regard negative responses within a much broader context. Negative coverage is an inevitable risk for large brands in general, and for political or purpose-full ads in particular. Brand advertising and promotion has always been risky. The emerging wisdom about ad risk is not so much about its avoidance as living and working with it. There are too many social and company variables that a brand cannot control. So, we must live with the inherent risks, and learn to work with them.
Given the tremendous and ever-growing challenge of connecting brands with customers, many marketers are concluding that their brands need to stand for something socially important. Assigning a broader purpose to a brand is a powerful marketing tool, and doing so carries the risk of being criticized as “being too political.” It seems that most if not all of the seven brands advertised during this year’s Super Bowl not only accepted the risks, they reaped the rewards by working with the risks and standing their ground.
Karen Puckett is the President and Chief Executive Officer at Harte Hanks.
Mark Blessington is President of Mark Blessington Inc., a sales and marketing consulting firm.