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A Million Reasons

An obscure event called the ‘Super Bowl’ took place last night. In addition to a tension-filled overtime game. (Congratulations, Patriots, but would you consider letting someone else win one next year?). This year’s shindig featured (1) an interesting halftime show by Lady Gaga, and (2) a multitude of high production-value advertisements.

For those of you hiking in the Himalayas or otherwise prevented from partaking in this year’s cultural extravaganza, I’ll give you one guess as to which one of these two ventured into politics. Here’s a hint – it’s not the one you think. Read on to understand why.

Here’s a blinding glimpse of the obvious: we’re entering week three of the Trump administration and the US remains intensely divided. Forget baseball. Politics has become our national pastime, and not in a good way. Emotions are raw, and people of all political persuasions seem ready to go to DEFCON 1 at the drop of a hat (or the posting of a Tweet).

Into this maelstrom came this year’s Super Bowl, which was once just a football game and a good excuse to eat barbecue chicken wings. What’s a performer or a brand to do? There is a continuum of options, but three main approaches, representing both ends of the spectrum, with one in the middle. We saw great examples of all three during the course of the big game.

1. Play It Safe.
The safe option in the current environment, of course, is to avoid pouring gasoline onto the already raging fire. Lady Gaga surprised me (and I’m sure many others) by picking this route, but it was a savvy move as we’ll see.

Lady Gaga is a highly political artist whose fame derives from a combination of great musical talent and her risk-taking avant-garde imagery. This, after all, is the woman who wore a meat dress to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Gaga was a strong and very public supporter of Hilary Clinton (and certainly no fan of President Trump). Folks at the NFL had to be a trifle concerned that she would follow in Beyoncé’s footsteps from Super Bowl 50 and ‘go political’ in front of more than one hundred million US viewers. Recent events in Washington certainly set the stage for just such a rebuke.

Such worries were clearly misplaced, however, as Lady Gaga started her set with a few bars of “God Bless America” and “This Land is Land,” followed by a high energy medley of her hit songs in which she stayed away from any editorializing between songs, and simply let her music do the talking. Yes, she performed a couple of verses of “Born This Way,” but it’s not like she was wearing a pink pussyhat and waving a rainbow flag.

Lady Gaga clearly understood that at least part of the audience was expecting her to go political, and would have reacted very negatively if she had done so. At the very least she would have divided the audience and called attention to the very thing that a lot of people just wanted to forget for a couple of hours. And so, as the clever (and commercially smart) person she is, Gaga went against the expectations and played it straight. As a result, she walked away from the performance with good reviews, the #1 song on iTunes, and the opportunity to fight her political battles another day.

Lesson #1: Even media brands and shows with very strong points of view need to know when to speak out and when to back off. Nobody likes a one-note Johnny.

2. Ride the Fence.
Some brands want very much to be relevant without being polarizing. Budweiser clearly brings home the prize for this category this year. The beer giant’s “Born the Hard Way” ad used the story of Company founder Adolphus Busch (who immigrated to the US from Germany at age 18 back in 1857) to link the Company to a broad appeal to the American dream. The advertisement was well crafted, but I think the approach here is flawed and can easily lead to the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand, the use of 19th century history and an obviously European white male protagonist could very well seem like a cop-out by those on the Left looking for a clearer statement of support for today’s immigrants. On the other hand, the advertisement’s stereotypical portrayal of snarling, redneck immigration opponents literally shouting “You’re not wanted here. Go back home!” to poor, noble Adolphus could easily offend those on the Right who believe that stronger immigration controls are necessary to maintain national security.

Lesson #2: Anheuser-Busch just went to a lot of time and expense to create something that may be unifying primarily in terms of its ability to offend those with a wide variety of views. This is not smart, and cultural creators of all stripes (I am looking at you, TV writers) need to heed the lesson. Yes, it’s incredibly tempting to try and be ‘timely,’ but not at the expense of alienating the very audience you are trying hard to attract.

3. Go For Broke.
As every First Amendment scholar knows, commercial speech is still speech, and sometimes the whole point is to make a point. For small brands (and artists and shows) looking to get noticed, a strong political stance is both risky and powerful. Like you, before last night I had never heard of construction supply company, 84 Lumber. Who would have thought lumber could be (or would be) political? 84 Lumber’s powerful ad, “The Journey,” tells the story of a Hispanic mom and her young daughter as they travel North towards a better life in the US. The ad that ran on the Super Bowl ends with them still on the journey (and a link to a website to see how it turns out). The online version of the ad (which they claim was rejected by Fox) depicts the mother and daughter finally arriving at the US border only to find a huge wall there. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it goes without saying that this is one of the most overtly political Super Bowl ads ever.

Three reasons why this was potentially a brilliant move by 84 Lumber. First, if the goal is name recognition, the bolder, the better. We’re talking about 84 Lumber right now, aren’t we? Second, this is a building supply company whose primary customers are people working in the construction trades. A whole lot of these people are Hispanic, many of whom are wondering just how (or whether) they fit into Trump’s America. This ad could not have been more perfectly crafted to communicate to these people that 84 Lumber stands strongly with them. If I were Latino (and in the building trade) I’d be going down there tomorrow to buy some supplies and show my support. Third, 84 Lumber is not a B2C company with significant exposure to end consumers. Sure, that ad offended some Trump supporters, but it’s not clear how that really hurts their business. End customers of building services don’t know and don’t care where the building supplies come from, so the chances of a meaningful consumer-led boycott are slim to none.

Lesson #3: there is no law that says brands have to stay out of politics. We are living in a highly politicized moment, and there are brands (and shows, I’m looking at you, Samantha Bee) that have a lot to gain (and very little to lose) by making their views known loud and clear.

Media (including advertising) and politics used to be separate domains, overlapping only briefly prior to each election. For now at least, those days are over. Every content company, media brand, and advertiser needs to think hard about its political angle, and figure out which approach best fits.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.