Business

Super Bowl shows ads must tread delicately in today’s political minefield

Anheuser-Busch has spent the past week insisting that its Super Bowl ad — in which Budweiser creator Adolphus Busch arrives in the United States to cries of “go back home!” — was never intended to be a political statement about immigration. It was filmed in May, the company explained, long before the country’s bitter split over President Trump’s move to tighten the borders.

We are living in a hyper-political moment. Sentiments that once seemed perfectly safe, even generic, suddenly look partisan. If advertisers didn’t know that before Sunday, they must now, as #BoycottBudweiser trends among conservatives who thought the ad was little more than a thinly veiled criticism of the new president’s policies. Many on the pro-immigrant side of the fight, meanwhile, saw Bud as siding with them.

“There’s a bit of an emotional hair-trigger right now,” said Marty Donohue, a partner and creative director at Full Contact, a Boston ad agency. “On either side of the political discussion, everybody’s looking to pounce.”

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This toxic zeitgeist puts consumer companies in a tough spot. How to seem honest and relevant without coming down on one side and alienating the other?

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Facing this paradox and a bitterly divided country, companies took a variety of approaches to the Super Bowl, which is, well, the Super Bowl of advertising, with more than 111 million viewers tuning in this year.

Many brands opted for the “la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you” strategy, offering escapism and chuckles at a moment when little seems funny.

Proctor & Gamble used computer animation to show us a disturbingly hairless Mr. Clean tidying a woman’s home while performing a Magic Mike-style, mop-and-clench dance routine. Try to find the political commentary in that one.

But other companies reached for the live wire.

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Airbnb slapped together an ad just days before the big game that showed this text over a diverse group of faces:

“We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” No decoder ring required.

Even more explicit:

Audi’s commercial, in which a father ruminates on whether his daughter will run into the gender wage gap, and 84 Lumber’s ad showing a Mexican mother and daughter encountering a border wall, which had to be drastically watered down before Fox would air it.

So will we see more on-the-nose ads like these? Probably, experts said.

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“If you’re not culturally relevant, you’re not relevant — period,” said Lesley Bielby, chief strategy officer at the Boston ad agency Hill Holiday. “And not a day goes by that we’re not having conversations with clients about the political situation. It’s impossible to ignore the shift.”

Still, advertising executives doubted that many mainstream brands will dive head-first into politics, as 84 Lumber did, but they said companies will probably take the Airbnb approach, obliquely referencing current events without offering an explicit rebuke or endorsement of a specific policy.

“Good advertising taps into relevant shifts in the culture. Advertising was always meant to make you feel something, and you can only do that if you touch a nerve, or an emotion,” Bielby said. “The key thing is not to take sides. You place your brand alongside the cultural moment, take the high ground, and talk about how this affects humans. It still might create some outrage, some disruption, some polarization, but ultimately it creates a feeling.”

But Bielby and others cautioned that authenticity remains key. Brands that try to seize on current events in a clumsy, opportunistic way will be rightfully roasted on social media, they said. “Women’s March on Washington, brought to you by AirBnB” won’t fly. But a tweet showing a contingent of AirBnB employees at the event? #Winning.

“You have to be careful to not make it feel self-serving,” said Alyssa Toro, chief creative officer at the ad agency Connelly Partners in Boston. “You have to show, ‘We’re right there with you, walking the walk.’ ”

Brands that want to be relevant but are squeamish about politics can try appealing instead to the country’s emotional state. Toro praised Honda’s ad on Sunday, in which celebrities’ high school yearbook photos come to life and give speeches about the power of dreams. The sentimental spot offered hope and reassurance but didn’t address any controversy.

“You can respond to how people are feeling without necessarily pushing something,” Toro said. “They just delicately hit on it.”

But advertising executives agreed that brands shouldn’t kowtow to critics who are overreacting to relatively innocuous ads, especially those that reflect a company’s values or story. The Anheuser-Busch spot, for example, ought to be something every American can agree on, they said.

“It’s autobiographical. It’s literally what happened!” said an exasperated Donohue. “As long as there’s a truth and integrity behind the story and you’re not just doing it to be outrageous and salacious, you’re damn right you can put that message out there.”

Donohue added that this moment, as intense as it seems, will probably pass. Advertisers should be wary of overcommitting to social-justice-tinged campaigns that could quickly go from brave to me-too.

“The politicizing of marketing might have a very short shelf life,” he said. “Once everyone’s in the same pool, suddenly I’m not standing apart like I thought I was.”

“Hopefully, the next trend will be things that unify rather than disparage,” he added. “That’s what America’s all about.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.