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Those 'Political' Super Bowl Ads Weren't Quite About Politics

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."
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What was the target audience for those commercials that ran during that glorious Super Bowl Sunday night? (I'm from New England.)

You know the ads I'm talking about -- the ones that were less about selling a product than conveying a sentiment about America. The Budweiser ad that depicted Adolphus Busch immigrating from Germany in the 1850s. ("Go back home," he's told as he walks down the street.) The Coca-Cola commercial, revived from 2014, in which Americans of different nationalities sing "America the Beautiful" in their native languages. The Expedia ad about influencing "narrow minds" and trying to "puncture prejudice." And, of course, the 84 Lumber commercial that tells the story of two illegal immigrants, a mother and a daughter, trying to find their way to the U.S.

These ads have been widely depicted as being "political," and given the times we're living in, I suppose they are. When the Coke ad first ran three years ago, it was seen as just another of the company's heart-tugging ads about inclusion. Not this time. With the football game coming so soon after President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, the prism through which one saw these commercials was different.

Not surprisingly, opponents of the ban took to Twitter to heap praise on the companies for standing up to the White House -- often vowing to buy their products (Budweiser especially).

Jamie Lee Curtis @jamieleecurtis
Bravo @Budweiser 4 having ???????? 2 run that beautiful commercial. Even sober I will buy some 2 say thank you. #NoBanNoWall #allofusareimmigrants
Twitter: Jamie Lee Curtis on Twitter

Supporters of the ban, meanwhile, called for a boycott of Budweiser and 84 Lumber, among others. On Tuesday morning, articles about the Super Bowl ads -- sold by Fox for $5 million per 30 seconds -- honed in on the politics. The Verge said that "it was almost impossible" not to see those message ads as "opposition against the new administration." The New York Times quoted Rob Schwartz, the chief executive of TBWA\Chiat\Day’s New York office, saying, in reference to one pro-diversity ad, "It's a big slap in the face of, 'Dude, this is America.'"

But I don't think the ads were really meant to turn immigration supporters into customers -- or to turn away customers who were pro-Trump. (Are they really going to stop drinking Bud?) With one exception, which we'll get to in a moment, I think the advertisers were aiming at a different constituency: their own employees.

Go to the website of just about any big company. You'll invariably see a section devoted to the company's commitment to inclusion and diversity. You will also see a section about corporate social responsibility. And there will surely be some mention of the desire "to make a difference." (Or all three at once. From the Kellogg's corporate responsibility webpage: "The Kellogg's workforce is a diverse and inclusive community of passionate people making a difference.")

Employees -- and I'm speaking here mainly of white-collar employees who work in big offices -- want to believe that their employer is trying "to do the right thing." Along with "making a difference" and corporate social responsibility, that notion makes them feel good about working for, well, Budweiser; it allows them to feel that they are serving a purpose larger than just selling beer. To take another example, being environmentally responsible may or may not save a company money, but it will surely cause the majority of its employees to swell with pride. That's a big part of the reason companies do it.

In the global economy, every big company employs people who work abroad. U.S.-based employees travel around the globe. Most big companies also employ immigrants. Employees take it for granted that they will have colleagues who speak in accents, come from different backgrounds and have different color skin. No matter what Washington is doing, in corporate America, this is completely accepted.

In the furor over the immigration ban, a number of companies have had to try to help employees who are affected by Trump's order. But it's not just that. Though I can't prove it, I feel pretty certain that the corporate employees who object to the ban vastly outweigh those who support it.

At Uber, employees practically revolted when it appeared that their CEO, Travis Kalanick, was going to meet with Trump as part of an economic advisory council. After a tense all-hands meeting, he resigned from the council. Elon Musk went to the Trump meeting but felt the need to state publicly that he objected to the ban. Google employees staged a walkout to protest it. Comcast employees in Philadelphia held a rally in front of City Hall.

On Sunday night, a few hours after the Super Bowl, 97 companies signed an amicus brief asking the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to block the ban. The brief lists a host of reasons why the ban is bad for business: "It hinders the ability of American companies to attract great talent; increases costs imposed on business," etc. etc.

But there was also this:

Immigrants make many of the Nation's greatest discoveries. America has long recognized the importance of protecting ourselves against those who would do us harm. But it has done so while maintaining our fundamental commitment to welcoming immigrants.

Sounds like a Super Bowl ad, doesn't it?

As for that one exception I mentioned earlier, it's the ad for 84 Lumber, a $2.9 billion building-materials company south of Pittsburgh. The 84 Lumber ad extols not just immigration, but illegal entry into the U.S. It depicts the arduous journey of a mother and daughter in search of a better life, and though Fox refused to allow the company to show it on television, the ad even shows a border wall of the sort Trump wants to build.

A few days before the Super Bowl, the company president, Maggie Hardy Magerko, spoke to a reporter for the New York Times about it. Magerko, who says she voted for Trump, said bluntly that the ad was a recruiting tool -- presumably meaning she wanted illegal immigrants to apply for jobs. "I am all about those people who are willing to fight and go the extra yard to make the difference and then, if they have to, climb higher, go under, do whatever it takes to become a citizen," she told the Times.

Or, for that matter, to become a worker at 84 Lumber. Or the founder of a brewery in St. Louis.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Joe Nocera at jnocera3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net