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Dead dogs and border walls dominate 2017’s politically charged Super Bowl ads

Katie Rife: We’ve been talking a lot, both amongst ourselves and on Facebook Live, about how even normally innocuous pop-cultural events have become politicized in the charged atmosphere of 2017. Thankfully, though, Super Bowl LI had none of that. Instead, we got to enjoy an increasingly rare moment of peace as we all sat back, ate nachos and chili dogs, and celebrated what is sure to be the galvanizing event that will surely bring Americans together and remind us that we have more commonalities than we do differences: The digital resurrection of dearly departed Bud Light spokesdog Spuds MacKenzie.

I wish. Although I did enjoy the return of Bud Light’s ’80s bull terrier mascot and the warm memories of wood-paneled basements and novelty T-shirts he evokes (seeing Spuds made me more nostalgic than the Stranger Things season two trailer, which I guess tells you something about my childhood), this year’s Super Bowl was even more fraught than we anticipated. Many have already made note of the parallels to election night—a team that seemed like a sure thing somehow fumbling a massive lead to lose at the last minute to a rival led by a wildly divisive figure—and to Lady Gaga’s subtle editorializing during her high-wire act of a halftime show. (Shout-out to Woody Guthrie!) But we’re here to talk about the true purpose of this massive televised event, which is to sell stuff.

This year, the most notable trend I noticed was brands making statements in support of diversity and immigration, which stands in stark contrast to our current administration’s policies. The most overtly political ad came from 84 Lumber, whose website was overrun with visitors after it aired an ad depicting a mother and her young daughter traveling from an unnamed Latin American location across the U.S. border by foot. The company says Fox rejected its initial ad for its imagery of a border wall blocking the family’s passage, and the final version exhorts viewers to watch the entire extended five-and-a-half minute ad online:

Based on the YouTube comments on the ad (never read the comments), you’d think this was a risky move for 84 Lumber. But the video got more than 3 million views overnight, and what was a relatively obscure building materials company the day before Super Bowl LI is now a household name.

Companies both small and large took calculated risks by airing politically charged ads this year. Danette, what did you make of this phenomenon?

Danette Chavez: With an estimated 70 percent of the country watching, it doesn’t surprise me that advertisers decided to pitch to as wide an audience as possible. Super Bowl spots come at a hefty price, so it was going to be a gamble for any of these companies to address the divisive issues that have come to the forefront in the last week. But surely some of the people in the market for cheap beer and soft drinks are immigrants, related to immigrants, or just tolerant, decent human beings. Coca-Cola and Budweiser shared Lady Gaga’s approach, which was less about calling out our Cheeto in chief (that was a missed opportunity for Frito-Lay, I say), and more about highlighting the similarities in our origins.

Budweiser charted Adolphus Busch’s journey from Germany to St. Louis, where he would one day help found the beer company that became synonymous with America (for marketing purposes, anyway). It glossed over the fact that Budweiser wasn’t actually Busch’s invention, but it still had a potent point: immigration remains one of the arteries pumping the life’s blood of this country.

It was smaller companies like Lumber 84 and It’s A 10 that took a greater risk; despite not having the history or name recognition of your Budweisers and Coca-Colas, they pushed harder against Trump’s immoral decree. The former took a stronger stand, offering a visual critique of Trump’s border wall. The latter point was made with light ribbing, but the point still stands. For someone who considers himself God’s gift to capitalism, Trump was probably pretty cheesed off by the oblique mockery:

But this historic Super Bowl—the first one I’ve watched in a decade, and also the first to hit overtime—wasn’t exactly a polemic against our new president. Again, the focus was on bringing people together, to share pistachios with an elephant, drink some Yellow Tail, or, in Coca-Cola’s second spot, just enjoy some (ethnic) food. Meanwhile, Airbnb threw its doors open with a commercial touting its new anti-discrimination policy—the #WeAccept spot makes it clear that all boarders are welcome.

The Airbnb ad is actually an abbreviated version (under the auspices of a new hashtag) of a commercial that debuted last November. The original spot wasn’t exactly a late-autumn effort to begin the healing process in the country following the election, though: Airbnb was doing damage control in the wake of allegations about discriminatory renting practices that arose the previous April. Even though Coke’s “love story with food” and “America The Beautiful” commercials were also repeats, Airbnb’s spot just ended up looked like a repackaging of its own apology. It felt a little misguided, like Kia’s commercial, which saw Melissa McCarthy in all kinds of danger while she tried to save the world.

The message is that getting out and actually doing things is just too goshdarned hard, so you’re better off just driving a fuel efficient car. It was funny, but was it a tonal misstep, Katie?

Katie Rife: Well, it’s not bad to drive a fuel-efficient car, so while I get that an ad encouraging armchair activism does have the ability to raise eyebrows, I wasn’t too concerned with the content of the Kia spot. In fact, its cheeky references to hot-button issues actually made it stand out compared to what seems to be becoming an increasingly irrelevant way to sell stuff, whether it be Coca-Cola or the Democratic Party. That’s right: I’m talking about celebrities.

Where having a famous face in an ad used to guarantee buzz, it’s now become commonplace. This year, advertisers tried different tactics to heighten interest and raise the celebrity stakes, from pairing up famous faces—Wix.com paid to have both Gal Gadot and Jason Statham in its first Super Bowl ad, for example, and Honda enlisted a whole yearbook’s worth of famous faces—to courting controversy.

T-Mobile tried both, enlisting Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart for an extended weed euphemism before airing an instantly infamous pair of BDSM-themed ads starring Kristen Schaal.

For me, the latter worked much better, if only because I think Kristen Schaal is funny. But overall, the celebrity ads didn’t do it for me. Are you still charmed by famous faces in ads, Danette, or are you as over it as I am?

Danette Chavez: It’s definitely become more difficult to muster up any real excitement over all the star power that’s packed into commercial breaks—especially when it appears, as in Statham and Gadot’s case, that a couple of beautiful people just wandered in. After all, the Super Bowl is the, well, Super Bowl of commercials, when companies should be rolling out their best spots, not just their best-looking ones. This Bai water ad had Christopher Walken quoting ’N Sync in front of former boy bander Justin Timberlake, and had the air of being the very first idea proposed that the company just ended up running with:

There’s nothing wrong with weird for the sake of weird, but it’s just not going to cut it on such a big stage. Maybe that’s why H&R Block’s latest Jon Hamm-centered offering was more earnest: rather than scarfing down doughnuts, Hamm just hawked the company’s new IBM Watson-backed software.

It may not have had Jeffrey Tambor helping Terry Bradshaw do his laundry, but the straightforward ad accomplished the rare feat of actually being informative. I was surprised by how welcome a change of pace that was. Even though I couldn’t care less about Daytona Day (which is itself an ersatz marketing event), I understood what was being promoted in the racing-centric Fox Sports spot with James Van Der Beek, who’s always up for some meta comedy.

And speaking of winking self-awareness—or rather, a lack thereof—Lady Gaga extolled the virtues of Tiffany & Co., whose platinum charm bracelets and diamond earrings have, for years, apparently been counterculture signifiers. I guess I forgot that Holly Golightly wanted to follow up breakfast at Tiffany’s with a revolution.

But yeah, that’s the former New York club kid and “Born This Way” singer talking about how, through the various stages of her transformation, she’s always acknowledged that Tiffany makes some boss jewelry. I guess we all want nice things, whether it’s an avant garde look or a $375 harmonica. This ad was one of several that pushed higher-end merchandise, while a few others, including the Febreze and Tide spots, were on the opposite end of the price spectrum. What did you think of this “have and have not” theme, Katie?

Katie Rife: I was also struck by the ads for high-end products sprinkled in with the more traditional, mass-market Super Bowl fare. Granted, I’m not a car person, but I had never even heard of Alfa Romeo before the Italian luxury car brand ran a pair of ads during the game and splashed its name all over the halftime show:

Capitalism relies on continually raising the stakes on consumer desires, I suppose, and America is very much divided right now into the haves and the wish-they-had’s. These ads were giving the masses new items to covet, rather than appealing to the upper classes who can already afford them. In that sense, in an event dominated by commercials designed to appeal to left-leaning values like diversity and inclusion, the ads for luxury products were the most Republican things out.

And speaking of Republican values, did anyone else catch the ad for oil during the game? You know, the one that literally flashed the words “This ain’t your daddy’s oil” across the screen, and posited that oil is awesome, because it’s used to make lipstick and spray paint? Well, that one was sponsored by the American Petroleum institute, which is currently lobbying to ease regulations on the oil industry and insists that oil spills are a rare occurrence despite scientific evidence to the contrary:

In the end, though, there was one advertiser that seemed to combine all of the running themes throughout this year’s Super Bowl commercials. It was accidentally politically relevant, featured a celebrity cameo, promoted what is rapidly becoming a coveted luxury item, and has already sparked conspiracy-tinged discussion online. Congratulations, avocados from Mexico, you’re the real champions of Super Bowl LI.