Super Bowl 2017 ads navigate fraught political landscape

Wonderful Pistachio's Ernie the Elephant
Wonderful Co. is fielding an advertisement featuring the pistachio-loving elephant Ernie. (Wonderful Co.)

Super Bowl Sunday traditionally has been a day for Americans to come together in a celebration of friends, football and big-ticket TV commercials.

This year, advertising executives are gingerly navigating a cultural divide. What will more than 100 million Americans who tune into the game find entertaining — not off-putting? In the era of President Trump, even a commercial about avocados from Mexico, which is set to run in the game’s first half, can be a reminder of the fraught political landscape that has forced advertisers to tread cautiously.

Beer company Anheuser-Busch could provide the test case. For nearly a year, it has planned a cinematic commercial for Budweiser as a tribute to the company’s immigrant founder, Adolphus Busch, who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1857. Shot in October — weeks before the election — the ad depicts Busch’s arrival in New Orleans, where two men hiss at him: “You are not wanted here” and “Go back home.”

Anheuser-Busch has said it wanted the commercial to be relevant — but executives could not have envisioned that Trump would sign an executive order to temporarily suspend travel for some people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries just a week before the Super Bowl. Already some conservatives have complained the immigration theme was too political.

The Mexican avocado ad, on behalf of Mexico avocado producers, avoids politics altogether and instead has comedian Jon Lovitz’s head swirling against a green backdrop. But the ad could remind football fans that Trump wants to slap a tariff on Mexican products.

“The country is so split politically right now,” said Russell S. Winer, a marketing professor at New York University. “Marketers are spending at least $5 million just to be in the Super Bowl — and they don’t want their messages to alienate anyone.”

The stakes were high even without the political tumult. Fox Broadcasting, which is televising Super Bowl LI, is charging a record of nearly $5 million for each 30-second spot — more than double the rate a decade ago. That means Anheuser-Busch is paying Fox nearly $10 million to run its minute-long Budweiser commercial.

And that’s just to cover the air time; marketers behind the big-budget ads typically spend another $3 million to $5 million to produce what they hope will become a mini-masterpiece. For some 60-second ads, the budgets can reach $15 million.

“If you are not creating something that transcends the 50 other ads in the Super Bowl, then you are wasting your money,” said Jason Sperling, executive creative director of the Santa Monica ad agency RPA, which designs ads for American Honda Motor Co.

Advertisers, he said, try to read the national mood so commercials feel topical. Concepts for this year’s Super Bowl typically were approved last summer — when most political observers predicted that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was about to become the first female president.

“None of us knew that we would be thrown into this much chaos and divisiveness,” Sperling said. “There are benefits and downsides to taking risks. Either the ad feels too light and airy, or it feels like it 100% dialed in.”

Five years ago, Chrysler’s “It’s Half Time in America,” featuring Clint Eastwood, was intended to show how the auto industry was making a comeback…