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Super Bowl Advertisers Take Unprecedented Stab at Social Relevance

Super Bowl LI advertisements added to the supercharged political zeitgeist on Sunday, as a number of brands took direct stabs at social issues, while others dipped a toe into them.

GettyImages-508969318-compressorOn the heels of a record volume of political communications between a president and CEOs, and business leaders’ unilateral pronouncements on issues ranging from the immigration ban to environmental deregulation, Super Bowl LI advertisements added to the supercharged political zeitgeist on Sunday, as a number of brands took direct stabs at social issues, while others dipped a toe into them.

Overall, commercials during the Big Game on Fox provided the biggest one-day attempt ever by Corporate America to market companies’ social relevance, all for an estimated $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

But there were risks.“Touching issues such as immigration, climate change or border control in ads would be like touching the third rail,” Allen Adamson, founder of BrandSimple Consulting, told the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, one brand, Pennsylvania-based building retailer 84 Lumber, said it had a local ad rejected by Fox that featured a border wall and Hispanic actors.

“Touching issues such as immigration, climate change or border control in ads would be like touching the third rails.

Here’s are some of the ads that took a stand.

1. Audi departed from its trademark Super Bowl-advertising humor with a 60-second ad using a soapbox-derby scenario to support gender equity in the workplace. “This is a culturally engaging topic that we as a company are very focused on,” Loren Angelo, vice president of marketing for Audi of America, told Chief Executive.

“We think that—to have a profound presence in the Super Bowl and for the investment we’re making—we wanted to relate to what America is talking about.”

2. Procter & Gamble took a somewhat lighter note to an adjacent issue in its first-ever Big Game commercial for Mr. Clean, depicting the virile mascot himself doing “women’s work” cleaning the house. But there was no mistaking the intent of the CPG giant’s attempt at social relevance.

“This raises the topic of gender equality when it comes to household chores,” Martin Hettich, North American vice president for home care for P&G, told Chief Executive. “Only 17 percent of households actually share the burden, so this is a glass ceiling for men. Even though they’ve improved quite a bit, they’re not cleaning enough, so there’s no better place than the co-ed audience of the Super Bowl to kick off that topic.”

3. Kia used humor in its 60-second spot to admire “environmental warriors” like the one it depicted in the ad, actress Melissa McCarthy. She tried to save whales and hug trees, among other things, and fought hilariously through obstacles to do so—with the help of her handy Kia Niro hybrid SUV.

4. Hyundai, Kia’s sibling brand, took an unprecedented approach to Super Bowl advertising to make a statement in support of U.S. military members. The South Korean automaker shot, edited and produced a 90-second “documentary” during the Super Bowl that featured four troops at an undisclosed base reacting to the game.

“Instead of making people laugh,” said Dean Evans, Hyundai Motor America CMO, the brand wanted to “mak[e] people feel something inside … and [feel] united as Americans.”

5. WeatherTech advertised during the Big Game for the fourth year in a row in support of made-in-America manufacturing. The company makes all of its high-end floor mats and other car-protection accessories at its factories in suburban Chicago.

“There’s a bigger picture here,” WeatherTech Founder and CEO David MacNeil told Chief Executive. “Certainly we wanted to sell our automotive accessories, but from a patriotic standpoint, we wanted to get people to think about supporting American manufacturers by buying American goods.”

6. Anheuser-Busch’s ad featured its co-founder, Adolphus Busch, and his immigrant journey from Germany to St. Louis in 1857. The ad made it clear that Bud stands “for those people [who] have a dream and work very hard until they make the[ir] dream come true,” Marcel Marcondes, vice president of U.S. marketing, told the Journal.

7. And Honda used actual high-school-yearbook photos of a handful of celebrities to speak to the brand’s recent positioning, “The Power of Dreams,” to promote an all-new version of its popular CR-V utility vehicle.

When asked, Susie Rossick, assistant vice president of Honda marketing, rejected the idea that the ad could bump up against rising aversion by some Americans to how celebrities have become political activists. “No, we didn’t take that into consideration,” Rossick told Chief Executive. “The concept had been in development for months prior to the election. But we considered this ad an escape. We were not making any kind of a political statement. We were encouraging people to follow their dreams, and if there are bumps on the road, to pick themselves up. It was: ‘Here’s a break from everything going on around us.’”

On the whole, however, it appears that brands advertising in the Super Bowl aren’t going to provide viewers with that break.

About Dale Buss

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.