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Super Bowl LI: An Exercise in Strategic Pandering

If you were looking to escape politics for a few hours during the Super Bowl, this year’s advertisers weren’t interested in helping you. Many abandoned the tired formula of monkeys, talking babies and scantily clad women in favor of overt political messages on subjects like immigration, diversity and pay equity.

It was a marketing gamble, to be sure, as the nation appears to be split on many of the issues in the commercials. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid politics. If you, as an advertiser, feel strongly enough about an issue, you have every right to throw $5 million at it for 30 seconds of pontification. If it matters that much, then by all means put your brand on the table and hope it pays off.

But just in case the folks at Audi, Airbnb or 84 Lumber were wondering, I’m not buying it.

We who create commercials for a living are cynical folk. We know that this amount of money isn’t spent without market research and strategic planning to back it up. We learn about our audience and what buttons to push, and we push hard – for profit. For the most part, the politically infused spots that ran last night were transparent attempts to co-opt important issues in the name of marketing. They weren’t genuine. And they crossed a line from strategic planning to what I’d call “strategic pandering.”

At the top of that pandering list is this spot from Audi:

Don’t misunderstand. I am 100 percent behind pay equity for women. But I found Audi’s attempt to address the issue heavy-handed and transparently manipulative. As someone who creates ads for a living, I’m paid to manipulate. But subtlety is always the goal. Don’t tell me what to think. Make me think it. That’s the difference that is missing here, and in other spots, like this one from 84 Lumber:

Spoiler alert: They built a giant door in the wall along the Mexican border. Let’s all give 84 Lumber kudos for interrupting one of the most divisive debates in America right now to sell some construction supplies. This spot was so heavy-handed, it could barely pick up the hammer that hit you over the head. And, sorry, but I don’t buy for a minute the whole “controversy” about FOX insisting that shots of the wall had to come out before the spot could air. I have no doubt that this happened. I also have no doubt 84 Lumber was thrilled about it.

And let’s not forget this rather forgettable spot from Airbnb:

I can’t argue with the sentiment that “we all belong.” But, I can argue that telling me what to feel is less persuasive than simply making me feel it. I guess Airbnb, which reportedly rushed this spot into production in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, didn’t have time for subtlety, opting instead for a simplistic and should-be-obvious statement of support in the form of a hashtag, “#weaccept.” Perhaps later the company can adapt that sentiment to read, “We accept all major credit cards.” Come on, Airbnb. You’re hardly being courageous by stating that you welcome people of all faiths, nationalities and sexual orientations. Isn’t that, like, the law? Don’t rush in at the last minute and try to tug at my heart strings. They’re not that easily hacked.

But lest you think I’m a heartless creative director, I should give credit to Hyundai for its “almost live” commercial at the end of the Super Bowl broadcast. The company shot its spot during the game at a military base in Poland. “Millions of people just watched the Super Bowl,” it said, adding, “Which wouldn’t be possible without our troops.” The spot then showed individual members of the military being escorted to private tents, where video conferencing was set up to connect them with their families. Personally, the payoff was a bit of a letdown for me – video conferencing isn’t really a “thing” anymore – but you have to appreciate the effort that Hyundai made:

This spot tugs at the heartstrings, and it works because it’s real: Real troops, in real time, talking to their real families. It’s not a made-up family encountering a wall, or a little girl whose pretend father recites some talking points about the very real issue of pay inequality, or a bunch of stock photos of diverse people pasted together with some copywriter’s version of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech.

Budweiser’s commercial, which its creators insist wasn’t intended to be political, also succeeds for similar reasons. It tells a true story of two immigrants, Anheuser and Busch, and their journey to America. Nobody had to make this story up. Unlike the spots from Audi, Airbnb and 84 Lumber, it’s genuine:

If you’re going to deal with reality in your commercials, then by all means, be real about it. And while you’re at it, try getting inside my head, instead of hitting me over it.


John Patterson is EVP/Executive Creative Director at MGH.

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