The Super Bowl is a red-letter day in every American football fan’s diary. According to Nielsen, last Sunday’s game, which saw the New England Patriots stage the largest comeback victory in Super Bowl history, brought in an average audience of 111.3 million viewers for Fox in the US. Surely, countless more remained glued to their TVs and laptops. Those numbers turn shows such as the Super Bowl — event television, if you will — into the perfect platform for making a statement.
As Lady Gaga’s performance at Super Bowl LI took place barely two weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration, it was assumed that her halftime show would be politically charged. Trump, after all, is reported to have been preparing an executive order that would roll back LGBTQ rights, an issue that she has addressed several times in her career.
Airbnb tackles diversity in their Super Bowl ad, We Accept.
Unlike Beyoncé, whose Super Bowl number paid tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers last year — following the release of the surprise Formation single and video, which in turn referenced both Hurricane Katrina and the mass protests across the US over police killings of unarmed young black men — Lady Gaga’s was relatively muted and fairly restrained. Apart from an introduction that incorporated the Woody Guthrie lyrics “This land is your land/This land is my land and the “Pledge of Allegiance” (One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all), there was no overt anti-Trump message. (That said, let’s not forget the 300 Intel drones, the true stars of the night.)
As resistance to the current US President has only grown since the inauguration, however, the advertisements that aired during Super Bowl LI took on a more political stance even if perhaps that wouldn’t have been the case in another context. Budweiser’s minute-long ad, for instance, caused a stir among Trump supporters who called for a boycott of the brand. This was all because the clip presented a heavily dramatized story of co-founder Adolphus Busch’s journey from Germany to the United States.
Companies are known to mine the heritage angle for marketing purposes, but context is definitely key. On its own, for example, Burberry’s Christmas fashion film entitled The Tale of Thomas Burberry is nothing but a celebration of the label’s 160th anniversary. In the light of the Brexit fallout, on the other hand, it becomes a stark reminder of the past, when the act of crossing borders in the spirit of exploration was largely unfettered by xenophobia.
While it has become okay for awards ceremonies such as the Oscars, for example, to become political, it’s a different matter when it comes to companies and brands. We’re so used to actors and celebrities wearing their hearts on their sleeves and talking about causes that they feel strongly about, but large corporations doing so is still quite a new concept. But that makes the ones that bother with bold statements — like Budweiser, Airbnb and Coca-Cola during the Super Bowl, and Dove, to a certain extent, with its past campaigns — stand out even more.
Of course, a cynical view of all this is to be expected. “Companies are now attempting to outdo each other with major acts of generosity, but there’s a catch: they’ll do good as long as they can make sure their customers know about it. There is no room for humility when a brand does a good deed,” according to The Guardian.
But better to have a point of view than none at all, right?