Super Bowl Advertisers Face New Risk of Accidentally Provoking TrumpBy
Several commercials include brands attacked by Trump
There’s too much risk in offending president, professor says
With an audience of more than 100 million tuning in Sunday, Super Bowl advertisers want their commercials to get attention -- just not the wrong kind. That’s even more true in an era where everything from Skittles to avocados has been politicized.
None of the ads for this weekend’s game on Fox are expected to purposely press any political buttons, but advertisers want to avoid even accidentally offending anyone. That’s a tall order in a particularly tense moment in America, when CEOs are under pressure to take sides on major issues and the president routinely scolds companies on Twitter.
Advertisers want to avoid situations like the one Coca-Cola Co. ran into three years ago with a Super Bowl ad with people of various ethnic backgrounds singing “America the Beautiful” in their native languages. The spot may have seemed innocuous, but it backfired in some circles, with people tweeting the hashtag #SpeakAmerican.
The various events under the first two weeks of the new administration, from a standoff with Mexico to an immigration crackdown, may have viewers looking at this year’s game through a different lens. That puts pressure on companies that paid Fox about $5 million apiece for 30 seconds of airtime during the game, which pits the Atlanta Falcons against the New England Patriots.
“Most executives really don’t know how to best handle Donald Trump,” said Timothy Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “You don’t want to be seen as being against Trump or for Trump.”
Here are some of the advertisers who will tread extra carefully this year:
- Anheuser-Busch InBev NV’s Budweiser will air a spot about the life of its co-founder, Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant. Budweiser said it’s not trying to make a political statement, and planned the commercial long before Trump’s executive order Friday created new barriers to entry for refugees from seven largely Muslim countries.
- Avocados From Mexico, the nonprofit marketing arm of two avocado associations, has a commercial about the health benefits of the fruit. It comes just days after talk of Trump’s border tax with Mexico has raised concerns about avocado prices.
- Intuit Inc.’s TurboTax will air an ad featuring Humpty Dumpty. Trump said in 2015 he hoped to put H&R Block Inc., TurboTax’s rival, out of business with his simplified tax code.
- Plenty of automakers are represented this year, including Ford Motor Co., which has gone from working with Trump on economic policy to opposing his immigration moves. The Dearborn, Michigan-based company will focus on innovation in its 90-second spot.
- The ad from Skittles, owned by Mars Inc., will feature a teenage boy throwing the candy at the window of a girl he’s trying to reach. Left unmentioned will be Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet last year comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles sprinkled with a few that “would kill you.”
A desire not to offend anybody certainly isn’t new. While some advertisers used to court controversy -- remember GoDaddy Inc.’s annual stunts? -- most have stuck to audience-friendly subjects like celebrities and singing animals in recent years.
Many advertisers have had plans for Super Bowl ads in the works long before the election, and have had plenty of time to change course, if necessary, after Trump won in November. But preparation time doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing. Plenty of commercials, such as Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.’s 2015 spot narrated by a dead child, have been criticized as tone-deaf despite good intentions.
Some brands could subtly try to address political themes. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, for instance, made waves in 2012 with “It’s Halftime in America,” an ad narrated by Clint Eastwood about the auto industry’s recovery from the recession. Two years later, the company struck a patriotic tone in an ad with Bob Dylan saying, “You can’t import original.”
It’s risky to offend the new administration, especially when some Super Bowl advertisers have already felt the wrath of Trump’s tweets and policies, Calkins said. The president is known as an avid TV watcher, so it’s reasonable to imagine him tweeting about an ad he likes or hates.
“What’s different now is that Trump will call out particular brands,” Calkins said. “If a president wants to make life difficult for a particular company, he can do that.”
Advertisers can hope that the president’s attention will be focused elsewhere. During last year’s game, Trump tweeted: “So far the Super Bowl is very boring -- not nearly as exciting as politics.”