Airing a commercial with a social or political message can be a risky move for any brand. It’s next to impossible to please everyone, so marketing teams try to remain as inoffensive as possible to appeal to a broad audience. However, a number of brands that bought coveted airtime during Super Bowl LI took a different approach, choosing instead to make a statement or court controversy, either directly or indirectly. Do the benefits of this kind of message marketing outweigh the risks, though?
This year’s Super Bowl had only few noteworthy ads – ones that kept people talking the day after – and most of those were message-driven. Given the political and social climate in America, it was an interesting year to see brands willing to take a stand and their express values. 84 Lumber was one such brand, airing a commercial that was intensely moving for many Super Bowl LI viewers.
Not only was the ad technically well executed, it also offered an underlying message of inclusion – a hot social and political topic right now. The tone of the spot, with its documentary-style cinematography and intimate story, was sincere and authentic, creating a compelling and emotional experience that left viewers eager to see the conclusion. The ambiguous ending drove viewers to 84 Lumber’s website to see the outcome – and was so successful that the site crashed soon after.
Message marketing comes with a number of advantages. It can go a long way in defining brand perspective and identity, and can offer insight into organizational principles. By doing so, brands open the opportunity to connect with audiences on a deep and personal level, as values are often key components to personal identity.
The values and brand perspective of Audi became apparent when they took a stand for gender equality and equal pay with their “Drive Progress” campaign.
This commercial addressed gender inequality in America head on, starting with a question that’s been top of mind for many parents lately – “What do I tell my daughter?” – and ending with a bold proclamation: “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.” The ad also expresses hope for the future, showing a young girl racing past her male counterparts in a go-kart race, conveying literally and metaphorically that women are every bit equal to men. With this ad, Audi connected to many female consumers, the (typically progressive) millennial generation and a broader progressive audience across the nation.
On the other hand, social and political messages can be polarizing, as those who don’t identify with the message may feel instinctually opposed to it and, by association, the brand. Even ads that attempt to leverage more abstract values can get wrapped into current events. Coca-Cola and Budweiser both aired ads during Super Bowl LI that focused on themes of traditional American values, but the timing of the spots stirred up controversy, regardless of their intention.
In Coca-Cola’s case, the timing was purposeful. The company re-aired a spot originally aired during the 2014 Super Bowl. It might seem brazen to spend millions of dollars to re-air an old spot, but the ad took on a whole new meaning this time around, and Coke used it to tap into an ongoing cultural conversation. Singing “America the Beautiful” in many languages may have sparked some differences in opinion about American values, but Coca-Cola, forever chasing the youthful and global markets, was able to align itself with both by drawing a line in the sand.
Anheuser-Busch also found itself in a bit of controversy for their Super Bowl ad, though the company denies any intentional political statements. The ad – created before President Trump’s divisive immigration ban – was, ironically, meant to reinforce Budweiser’s brand as an American staple by relating classic American ideals of entrepreneurship, hard-work and perseverance through the story of Busch’s immigration to America. The spot inadvertently touched a nerve with those who assumed the company was implicitly challenging President Trump’s executive order, and the social media trend #BoycottBudweiser was born. Still, if brand awareness, word-of-mouth and viral impressions are what they were looking for, Anheuser-Busch can consider this one a success.
Since the Presidential election, there has been a surge in message marketing that seems antithetical to traditional marketing practice. Why polarize a potential audience and turn off potential consumers? Some brands can inadvertently get swept up in controversy, but as this year’s Super Bowl ads showed, more and more brands are seeing it as an opportunity to go “all-in” with target audiences by aligning themselves with deeply felt values – even if they are socially and politically charged.