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Super Bowl LI commercials this year aim to bypass controversy

Intel's Super Bowl LI teaser, which was posted more than a week before the AFC Championship game, features Tom Brady waking up, brushing his teeth and making breakfast. Credit: Intel via YouTube

Hoping to avoid consumer backlash in the wake of one of the most divisive elections in recent American history, Super Bowl LI advertisers are seeking a safe middle ground scrubbed of any political overtones, according to industry experts.

That means more humor, more patriotism, more animals — the usual — but fewer celebrity pitches or ads that, unintentionally or not, echo campaign themes from 2016.

Experts say that while most Super Bowl ads remain shrouded in secrecy — a sharp reversal from years past, when the majority of ads were pre-released — they say at least one strategy does appear universal: no controversy.

“Advertisers are going to be very careful about not alienating millions of consumers,” says Charles Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova University’s School of Business and an expert on Super Bowl advertising. “Everybody is so sensitive to that this year.”

“We will see advertisers taking risks to stand out because it is such a cluttered environment,” Taylor adds, but “mass advertisers with big brands and millions of customers will want to avoid at all costs [celebrities] that viewers would pick up as either Democrat or Republican.”

“The creatives [commercials] we’ve seen so far haven’t had any political hints,” according to a spokesman for iSpot.TV, which compiles a vast database of national commercials, including Super Bowl ones.

Anheuser-Busch, which continues to maintain beer and alcohol commercial exclusivity in the game, will spotlight a new tag, “Famous Among Friends.” But another theme, “Celebrate Ambition,” will spotlight the immigration of company co-founder Adolphus Busch to the U.S. from Germany in 1857.

Jason Deland, founding partner of New York-based Anomaly, which created some of the Bud ads, recently told Advertising Age that avoiding all political themes will be difficult: “The country has been fixated on [politics] for a while, so it only makes sense that some themes we saw during the election will make their way into Super Bowl spots. Sometimes the Super Bowl is a reflection of culture.”

However, one advertiser has already courted political controversy. 84 Lumber, a building supplies giant based south of Pittsburgh, submitted a commercial to Fox that featured a wall that was preventing workers from entering the U.S. (84 Lumber’s Super Bowl commercial is about recruitment). Fox rejected the commercial.

The agency that made the ad — Pittsburgh-based Brunner — revised the commercial, while agency CEO Michael Brunner said in a statement that the lumber company “challenged us to create a 90-second spot that would tell the world who 84 is and what they stand for — a company looking for people with grit, determination and heart, no matter who they are, where they come from or what they look like.” He said the “full story” will be “released online” — an indication that the wall ad isn’t quite gone yet.

Here are some other key commercial trends in Super Bowl LI, airing on Fox/5 on Feb. 5:

  • This year’s celebrities: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is making his Super Bowl commercial debut in a spot for Intel, which has been pre-released online. Melissa McCarthy will star in one for the Kia Niro; Minnie Driver for Lexus; Jon Lovitz for Avocados from Mexico; Justin Timberlake for beverage company Bai Brands; John Malkovich for Squarespace; and Jason Statham and Gal Gadot for cloud-based web development company Wix.Com.
  • Surprise, surprise: Advertisers looking to break free from the crowd include Hyundai — which will literally shoot its commercial during the game — Peter Berg directs — and then air it after the game ends. But here’s the biggest surprise of all: Adam Driver (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) will star in what Mars’ Snickers is calling the “first-ever live broadcast” of a 30-second commercial during the game. Content remains shrouded in secrecy, but just to make certain viewers watch out for it, Snickers is releasing dozens of teases on YouTube.
  • Fewer pre-releases: Remember the good old days when advertisers “pre-released” their ads online to collect hits and social media love? They were good, but they are also gone: Far fewer commercials have been pre-released this year – only 14 so far – according to iSpot. Reason? Advertisers want to preserve some element of surprise.
  • Who’s in? Who’s out? GoDaddy dropped out of the Super Bowl last year, but will drop back in this year. GNC — new to the Super Bowl — will have an ad designed to jump start the company’s faltering fortunes. Meanwhile, there is one major departure: Doritos, which ran the popular “Crash the Super Bowl” (fan-made ads) for years, is sitting out this one.


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