SUPER BOWL LI: Business vs. Politics?

During this year’s Super Bowl, we saw a number of commercials that appeared to either explicitly or implicitly, take a political stance. A lumber company tackled immigration. An automobile company addressed gender equity. A tech company embraced diversity.

These messages were broadcast to a huge audience; according to Nielsen, Super Bowl LI was the fifth highest watched TV program ever with over 111 million viewers.

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And while the uptick in political undertones was obvious on Sunday night, the truth is that the majority of companies have not taken strong public stances on social and political issues.  While the assumption is that this uptick is in response to this President and the new political environment, the data shows that the public expectations for companies to weigh in has actually been growing for years.

Americans expect companies to do more. According to GSG’s annual Business & Politics study, 81% of Americans believe that businesses should take action to address important issues facing society. And 84% of Americans believe that businesses have a responsibility to bring social change on important issues, just behind the President (89%) and Congress (92%).  The data shows that there are real reputational, and potentially bottom line, benefits for companies willing to jump into the political discourse.

Those companies that ran spots in one of the most high-profile advertising venues in America certainly got a lot of attention – regardless of whether or not they said their ads were intentionally aimed at the new administration.

What we know, and we bet they do too, is that the election of Donald Trump does not mean that Americans no longer care about values such as diversity and inclusion, the rights of immigrants, or environmental stewardship. Nearly 66 million Americans, more than half of the total electorate, chose to support Hillary Clinton, the candidate who promoted these values. And per exit polls, even Trump voters did not uniformly embrace all of his positions.

Given that, it seems foolish to assume that there is not room for companies to continue to engage on these issues, particularly those for whom these have been central brand values and part of their corporate culture.

As we saw, Super Bowl viewers were ready to engage with ads with political messages. As the New York Times reported “Almost half of the time YouTube users spent watching ads on the service on Sunday was devoted to commercials tied to social and political topics.”

This effect was not just true of the larger brands, but also the less well known. The conversation on Twitter over the course of Sunday evening shows that stepping out has an impact. While Budweiser, Audi, AirBnb and 84 Lumber all saw a large uptick in discussion, 84 Lumber, the least-discussed of the brands in advance of the Super Bowl, saw the second highest peak and the greatest continued discussion of its ad (depicting an immigrants journey) online.

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And they continued to promote their message about opportunity and inclusion:

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Be assured that other brands are watching, and now have a much clearer picture of the visibility they can gain by taking a position on a controversial issue.  There will be more.

But, companies also need to keep in mind that increasingly, their communications will be viewed through partisan filters.

Ricardo Marques, a vice president at Budweiser, has said of the company’s ad: “This was not something we came up with at the last minute to make any sort of political statement.”  However the online reaction shows that very little can exist outside the political climate these days.  

GSG panels showed that viewers were more likely to engage with brands that echo their political beliefs. The most overtly political ad, 84 Lumber’s, had the most engagement from both sides.

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As well as engaging more, viewers’ political beliefs governed how they felt about the ads. While Clinton voters were largely supportive of the positions taken, Trump voters responded angrily. The word cloud below shows the reaction on the night from Trump and Clinton voters to the immigration focused ad from  84 Lumber. The ads prompted Trump voters to discuss illegal immigrants and even prompted calls to #BoycottLumber84. For brands, choosing to engage in politics will provoke a political response – and navigating this with the public, especially existing customers, is a challenge.

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We also saw that wading into political waters requires careful planning and should be inwardly focused and vetted, as much as advertised externally.  For example, Audi’s message on gender equity was well received by many:

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But outlets like the Huffington Post drew attention to the fact that, while Audi’s ad supported the message of gender equity, the company is far from progressive in the make-up of its leadership.

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This distinction did not go unnoticed online. Discussion of Audi’s all white, all male board was an everpresent of conversation about the brand, as shown by the word cloud below. Super Bowl viewers were “fact-checking” the company’s credentials in real time through online research.

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At a time when consumers have come to expect companies to engage in political and social issues, and are actively looking for brands that reflect their values, there is no bigger litmus test than advertising during the Super Bowl.  What we saw on Sunday is a sign of things to come.

Julie Hootkin and Tanya Meck are executive communications strategists that have been advising corporations on taking political and social stances since the trend emerged. They co-lead Global Strategy Group’s Corporate Impact Practice, which helps corporations build and protect their brands, reframe their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, and manage business implications in the new political environment. Luke Partridge and Brooke Karanovich also contributed to this post. 

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