For those of us who live and breathe politics and policy day in and day out, it can be difficult to not see the political side of nearly everything– and the Super Bowl is no exception to that rule.
You can pick political moments out of the Super Bowl in a million ways– whether it’s Jay-Z and Beyonce sitting during the national anthem, the traditional invitation to the White House for the winning team (and whether they choose to accept or decline), or the president’s tweet mistakenly congratulating Kansas City, Kansas, on its victory. But the commercials are where things really get interesting, because this is where and how the Super Bowl serves as a platform for political discourse.
It’s no secret that Super Bowl advertisements are among the most expensive ad buys that organizations will purchase all year, and that’s because, with about 102 million viewers this year alone, this coveted TV time captures the most eyeballs in one place at one moment. With the cost of air time running up to $5.6 million per 30 seconds for Super Bowl LIV, placing an advertisement on the “biggest stage in television” is no joke. It is high-pressure, high-dollar, and that is why organizations’ content creation and choices must be so deliberate. Because of the deliberate choices and intense planning and internal scrutiny behind the creation of Super Bowl advertisements, it becomes extra interesting to see what brands choose to say during the big game when literally all eyes are on them. And, in today’s world more and more companies and organizations have been increasingly advertising using their values and emotions more so than with their actual products.
So, without further ado, here’s our rundown on the politics of Super Bowl LIV, from the obvious to the eyebrow-raisers to the ads that made us all cry together.
Presidential & Political
Three of the most blatantly political ads of the night were, of course, those aired by incumbent presidential candidate Donald Trump as well as Democratic challenger Mike Bloomberg.
Pres. Trump’s campaign ran two 30-second reelection ads during the Super Bowl: one focusing on criminal justice reform and the other a more traditional campaign ad promising a “stronger, safer, more prosperous” America. The first ad featured 63-year-old Alice Johnson, the now-famous grandmother whose life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses was commuted by Pres. Trump after Kim Kardashian West spearheaded lobbying efforts around the case and pulled it into the national spotlight.
Mike Bloomberg had a similar idea in airing his presidential election ad on gun control. The ad tells the story of Texas mother Calandrian Simpson Kemp who lost her son to gun violence in 2013. The 60-second spot cost Bloomberg more than $10 million of his personal fortune, but to the New York billionaire this purchase set him back about as much as ordering a pizza would the rest of us.
Both ad buys mark the first time presidential candidates have purchased nationwide commercial slots during the Super Bowl, although with two billionaires running in a highly contested election this stat might not be too surprising. Ultimately, both campaigns were smart to take the opportunity to capitalize on the sheer number of viewers, including many that do not represent the traditional base supporters of either candidate. Both candidates’ ads received strong reactions in the social media sphere, with Trump’s first ad being perceived mostly positively by viewers and Bloomberg’s ad receiving a more negative response according to analytics.
Unity & Community
Several ads throughout the night tugged on some emotional strings while highlighting community and American unity in different ways. These ads are political in the sense that they leverage the current political climate to make a point– whether it’s done by highlighting issues that are at the forefront of debate or working to counter the divisiveness that can be felt across the country today. Some of the ads here do a bit of both.
One of the more emotional ads was a 60-second piece run by former NFL star Anquan Boldin’s organization the Players Coalition. Similar to Trump’s and Bloomberg’s campaign commercials, the ad touches on both criminal justice reform and gun violence as it tells the story of Boldin’s cousin, Corey Jones, who was killed by a police officer in 2015. The ad goes on to say that “some things are bigger than football” and highlights the work of the Players Coalition in promoting police-community relations, criminal justice reform, education and economic advancement. This emotionally-charged ad focused on issues that are not only relevant in the 2020 election, but that have also been front-and-center– and oftentimes controversial– topics in many communities over the past several years.
Walmart also focused on communities across the United States in one of its two commercials that aired during Super Bowl LIV. In its “United Towns” commercial (which fell just short of the national buy but aired before 80 percent of viewers via local buys during the game) the retail giant emphasized unity across the country in what some considered to be a “counterpoint” to the polarization of today’s America. Set to the tune of Elton John’s “Rocketman” the 60-second piece seeks to remind viewers that we are more alike and connected than we often realize. Some of the imagery here also recalled political ads of election cycles past– specifically Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “America” ad from the 2016 presidential race— that feature a well-known song paired with footage of America and its people, ultimately designed to evoke a poignant response from viewers.
Also pulling on the unity theme was Budweiser with its “Typical American” ad. This one stirred up some local controversy when the beer brand released it pre-Super Bowl, as part of the ad shows footage from a Charlotte, N.C ., protest following the 2016 death of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) officer. While the clip Budweiser included features a peaceful moment when a “peace activist” hugs a CMPD officer in riot gear, much of the Charlotte Uprising protests were violent and incurred significant damage– which is why critics have said the ad has “opened old wounds.” The commercial in its entirety is a montage of firefighters, good Samaritans, sports stars and many others doing great and inspirational things that seek to celebrate the “typical American” that is found in every audience member.
Finally, one ad that might have united Super Bowl LIV viewers more than anything else– simply because of how sweet it is– was Google’s tear-jerker “Loretta” ad which depicted an elderly man fondly remembering his late wife. We’re not crying, you are.
Some topics, such as gun control and criminal justice reform, came up more than once Sunday night. Several ads touched on a handful of other issues as well, and all are issues that weigh into policy discussions either on the state or federal level– or both. We’ve looked at two of the most prominent examples from the big game.
In one of the very first advertisements of the evening Secret Deodorant made a big statement with its “Secret Kicker” commercial. The ad depicted a standard football scene ahead of a make-or-break kick, and following the successful kick it is revealed to the audience that both the kicker and holder are female players. Secret has long been a brand that has been vocal in the gender equality arena, and this ad spot is just one part of its larger #KickInequality campaign.
Olay also turned up the girl-power with its “Make Space for Girls” commercial featuring an all-female cast and produced by a female-owned creative agency. The spot was inspired by the first all-female spacewalk last year and includes several familiar celebrity faces alongside retired astronaut Nicole Stott. Much like Secret, Olay’s ad buy is part of a larger campaign with a specific call to action.
Microsoft chose to highlight a very specific leading lady in its Super Bowl spot advertising its Surface tablet titled “The One.” The ad featured San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers, the first ever woman to coach in a Super Bowl game. The piece includes Sowers telling the camera “All it takes is one, and then it opens the door for so many,” followed by on-screen texting thanking Sowers for being “the one.”
Not just one but three major automakers– including two luxury brands– touted their new electric vehicles in their Super Bowl ad buys.
General Motors’ “Quiet Revolution” ad featured basketball star LeBron James as it teased its reinvented electric Hummer. The ad placement comes on the heels of a big announcement from GM stating that its Detroit, Mich., plant would soon become the automaker’s first dedicated solely to electric vehicles.
Audi was yet another big car brand to tout its new electric SUV, the E-Tron Sportback. Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams takes the driver seat in the 60-second spot and belts out Disney’s Frozen anthem “Let It Go” as a metaphor for leaving behind an “old way of motoring.”
Porsche also got in on the EV action with its 60-second spot titled “The Heist.” As the name might suggest, the ad featured a sleek car chase through winding roads as security guards sought to chase down the stolen all-electric Porsche Taycan. In what felt like a mini action-movie, Porsche ran its first Super Bowl ad in 23 years in an attempt to reach a new customer base as EVs gain popularity.
Ultimately brands had a lot to say about a few big issues, and these big issues are ones that state governments and the federal government are already examining in a variety of ways. Public opinion makes a difference in how policy is shaped, and brands and advertising can play a huge role in determining where exactly public opinion falls.
Brands and organizations pay a ton of money to make their 30- or 60-second splash in front of more than 100 million viewers during the Super Bowl with the hopes of leaving a lasting impression and, in many cases, influencing consumer behavior. Because the Super Bowl provides brands with “the biggest stage in television” on which to sell their products, it also provides them with a huge platform to also share their philosophies and values with the country. We know that Americans today are more polarized and passionate about political issues than ever before, and this passion has seeped into purchasing habits as well: according to recent studies more than a quarter of young consumers “spent money to support a brand because of the company’s social or political stance.” Ultimately customers want to put their money behind companies that share their values.
The Super Bowl doesn’t usually become embroiled in deep political controversy the way some other big events or brands do (such as the Academy Awards or Starbucks’ seemingly never-ending Christmas cup controversies), but that’s not to say it isn’t political. Whether it’s presidential candidates capitalizing on the captive audience to plug their campaigns or big brands making statements on hot social issues to connect with consumers, the big game is not only surrounded by politics but also serves as a platform for political discussion– and Super Bowl LIV was certainly no exception.