Politics, Content Marketing, and the 2017 Super Bowl Ads

Is it wise to get political with our content marketing?

We’ve all seen this year’s Super Bowl ads hashed, rehashed, and re-rehashed. The big theme of the year was: Crossing the line into politics.

But what happens when the line crosses you? In other words, how should a company respond when a previously non-controversial position suddenly takes a political charge?

In this 23-minute episode, I talk about that, as well as:

  • The new “brand activism,” and how it plays out in huge businesses — or normal small businesses like ours
  • The compass that always points the right direction for your business (spoiler: It’s your audience)
  • The ads I thought worked; the ads I thought didn’t
  • The biggest danger from going political with your marketing (and no, it’s not making people mad)

The Show Notes

Politics, Content Marketing, and the 2017 Super Bowl Ads

Voiceover: Rainmaker.FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by the all-new StudioPress sites. A turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those of you who are selling physical products, digital downloads, or membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. You can check it out by going to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Hey there, good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra links, extra resources, and the complete show archive by going to Copyblogger.FM.

Today I’m going to be talking about Super Bowl commercials, Super Bowl ads. I know you’re probably thinking, “We already talked about that to death last week, so why are you talking about it today?” The answer is that this podcast has about a one-week lead time. In another year, I might skip it and say, “Yeah, it’s good. We’re set.”

But this year, the kind of overwhelming theme of the Super Bowl commercials, which are of course, for those of you who don’t fixate on such things, the television ads run during our big American football Super Bowl, which is the big game of the year. These ads and the context of these ads are so relevant to what we’ve been talking about on Copyblogger for the last eight years that I thought it was worth talking about. Hopefully, maybe I’ll have something fresh to bring to the conversation or a different way that you might want to think about it.

To give super brief context, the Super Bowl advertising, it’s very expensive. The starting cost is about $5 million for a spot, but then you’re talking about maybe another $2 million to produce and another million dollars, in some cases, of PR to promote the ad outside of the time that it airs during the actual game. This is serious money being thrown around for a chance to talk to a very large number of people for a couple of seconds.

The way that advertisers — smart advertisers, smart agencies, smart PR firms — have gotten around this is, you guessed it, to treat them like content. To make them so interesting that people will go find them on YouTube if they didn’t catch the game. They will talk about them. They will record podcasts and all that good stuff.

So we do talk about them every year. I’m not personally a football fan. I don’t watch the game, but I always look at the ads. Many people share that, and of course, many, many people do watch the game. The big news about this year’s ads is the same as the big news about everything else in 2017, which is that this year, for the first time, they are political. This crop of ads is political, even going toward being controversial.

So today I thought we would talk about, is this a good idea? Is this something you should try out? Is this something that somebody who doesn’t have $8 million to spend for a 30-second advertisement, is this something that the rest of us can benefit from? And just try and pick out what’s going on with these ads. Then, is there something here that would be relevant to normal people creating normal advertising and marketing to get attention for normal businesses?

The New ‘Brand Activism,’ and How It Plays Out in Huge Businesses — or Normal Small Businesses Like Ours

Traditionally, historically, Super Bowl ads were just emphatically not political. It’s never really been particularly popular for this kind of ad form. Traditional wisdom is to keep out of politics with your advertising because there’s not enough perceived benefit. You lose half the audience, and then the other half may or may not really be that excited with you.

Now, to be clear, that is the thinking of the mass market advertiser. That’s the thinking for Ford, Coca-Cola, and the giant, giant companies that can afford this kind of advertising. Their targeted customer is everyone, so that kind of advertising has always tended to play it safe, especially with things that really matter to people.

And in recent years, the trend has been to become remarkable by just being bizarre. To create evermore strange and bizarre little animated characters to represent the brand and tell odd stories that stick in the mind. There’s still some of that, the Skittles ad told a weird little story. That’s the traditional Super Bowl ad in the last few years.

This year was a little different. Now, that kind of Super Bowl ad strategy — creating a very bizarre and memorable story, possibly with a bizarre and memorable character — it can work for a normal small business. It might work. It’s something that one could experiment with. It’s going to be tricky to pull off, but it’s a way that you can go.

However, this more political, more politicized position has actually always been something that a small business could have more room to play with than a larger business. We’ve never been able to reach everyone with a small business. We’ve never been able to be Coca-Cola. We’ve never been able to be the Levis jeans, the brand that was almost the generic brand.

We’ve always had to reach specific somebodies with a specific message, and a memorable message. Going a little more toward the political has always been more open to the smaller business than to these massive, mass brands.

But let’s talk about what that’s been looking like this year. The history of Super Bowl ads has been … they tend to be quite patriotic. People who like to watch football games often also identify as patriotic people. Scribbled in my notes when I was pulling together some thoughts on this podcast is the statement, “Patriotic or political in 2017, is there a difference?” Now, I think there is still a difference.

But something I’ve found striking is that, this year, advertisements are political, that if you had run them in 2015 or even 2016, would not have been taken that way at all. I think probably the most striking example of that is an ad for Budweiser, which is a pretty straightforward, hardworking immigrant story.

For those of you in the audience who are American, you recognized these stories. They’re part of our national story, our national mythology. The hardworking immigrant who comes to the country faces a lot of difficulties, overcomes a lot of obstacles, works very, very hard, and builds the American dream. When I say ‘mythology,’ I’m not saying in the sense of not being true. I’m saying it in the sense of it’s one of the most culturally resonate stories that Americans tell about America.

So an advertisement for a beer company that showcases a hardworking person who goes through some trials and tribulations to go from his country of origin to a new country, then meets with another immigrant, and they have an idea to sell beer — this is not a controversial story.

The fact that it’s being taken as a controversial or political one really shows that the landscape changed much more, I would argue, than that core story did. In fact, Budweiser’s VP of marketing did go on record saying that they had no intention of creating a political statement with the ad, adding, “We recognize that you can’t reference the American dream today without being part of the conversation.”

I remember seeing the actress Eva Longoria interviewed once, and she talks about when people ask her, “When did your family cross the border?” She says, “We didn’t. The border crossed us.” Their family came from a place that has been in the United States and in Mexico, depending on where the political line has been drawn.

That line really struck me about the political environment right now. It’s not so much that brands are crossing a line, although some have moved. Some have shifted position. The line kind of crossed them.

I would really argue that Budweiser ad, if you had run it two years ago, the primary criticism of it might have been it was a bit boring. It didn’t have any dancing chimpanzees or strange little characters with funny voices singing a catchy theme song. It would have been entirely unremarkable.

The Ads Sonia Thought Worked, the Ads Sonia Thought Didn’t

I figure I might as well give you my take on a couple of the ads, trying to take a strategic look at them and what they were doing. I thought the Audi ad was a well-told story. I thought it was pretty straightforward.

Anytime you’re telling stories about kids and parents, that’s a theme that’s going to resonate with a lot of people because a lot of people have kids. Even more people have parents. Then they’re expressing an opinion that’s not exactly ultra-controversial — “We’re committed to equal pay for equal work.” That’s pretty mainstream at this point.

I thought it did a good job of speaking to their people. Who buys Audis? People who have money, because they’re expensive, professional people on the younger side. It’s kind of an affluent, professional brand.

If I were going to criticize, and I don’t really need to criticize it, but I would say it has the appearance of taking a brave stance when, in fact, they’re not exactly taking a risk here. I think Audi knows its customer very well. It knows that its customer thinks this is a pretty non-controversial statement. Professional men and professional women should make the same money, and professionals are very much who Audi is speaking to.

Another ad that might have felt controversial in a way, not because it crossed a line, but because the line crossed it, was the Coca-Cola ad. There is an absolutely straight line from the classic Coca-Cola ad, “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” to this year’s Coca-Cola ad, which was singing America the Beautiful with different voices in different languages. Coca-Cola’s PR person on their YouTube video of the ad puts in quotes, “We believe that America is beautiful, and Coca-Cola is for everyone.”

I’m just going to go out on a limb and say I don’t feel like this is a super radical statement. They do go on to add, to actually call out certain values by name. People are talking about values right now. The values they mention are, “Optimism, inclusion, and humanity. Values that bring us closer together.” Again, that’s a quote.

Again, I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m seeing a bold controversial statement here. Then, again, it’s Coca-Cola, so we’re not looking for Occupy Wall Street from Coca-Cola. It’s just very in line with their brand. Their brand has always had that feel-good inclusiveness. It’s just part of the Coca-Cola message.

I thought an altogether a more interesting presentation, the presentation of the ad, which was a very dramatic story, and then the backstory behind it, was a company called 84 Lumber, which is a company that a lot of us have never heard of. I’ve never heard of them.

They’re a small huge company. According to The New York Times, they bill about $2.9 billion annually. They do business in 30 states, so by any normal measure, they’re a huge company. However, they’re not Ford motors, and they’re not Coca-Cola.

They told a very dramatic story, again an immigration story. They had a longer version of the ad that they ran on their website. There’s various stories around that. The thing that I find interesting about 84 Lumber is it’s a little hard to figure out what they stand for, even though the ad was really dramatic and was a really intense, dramatic story.

It is the story of a mother and daughter trying to immigrate from Mexico to the United States. They have a very difficult journey, and they come to the border. They encounter a wall. If for some reason you have not heard this, there is a highly controversial proposal to build a border wall with Mexico. Then they see a big door in the wall, they go through the door, and they come to the United States.

The CEO and owner of 84 Lumber has given quite a few interviews about the ad. Her position seems to be interpreted as all kinds of different things, all over the map. Many people believed this was an overly political ad, a daring ad, that was criticizing this controversial proposal to build a border wall with Mexico.

The Biggest Danger from Going Political with Your Marketing (and No, It’s Not Making People Mad)

Now, here’s where it gets weird. The CEO and owner supports the wall, thinks it’s a good idea, voted for the president who’s proposition it is. The message of the ad, the story of the ad seems completely, directly counter to her actual values. That’s where I think it might get tricky for this company.

I’ll give you a couple quotes from that CEO. “This came from the heart, and I didn’t do it for personal gain.” That’s cool — $8 million is a lot of money to spend just to do something for giggles, but that’s fine. They make 2.9 billion dollars annually, so they’ve got money in the budget.

Now, The New York Times and other venues report that this ad is not necessarily aimed at consumers. It’s aimed at potential employees. The company owner has stated that they’re trying to employ young Millennials who really believe in the American dream because they’re going to be doing massive expansion.

The issue here is, this owner is trying to attract an audience by expressing values, but nobody who sees the ad really understands what the values of the company are. She’s for some kind of immigration, and she’s not for other kinds of immigration. It is an industry, the construction industry, that’s strongly associated with immigrant works, including a lot of immigrant workers who don’t have documentation.

Many people thought she was supporting that. She says, “No, this is actually the opposite of what she supports.” It’s really confusing. She’s coming out with a message, and it’s a well-told story — but it’s not telling the story that she actually believes. I have absolutely no personal insight into this person. I can’t tell you what she meant or didn’t mean. All I can tell you is what she’s gone on record telling reporters.

Here, I think is maybe the instrumental story in terms of what we can take away, a lesson if you will, that we can take away from this set of ads. If you’re going to create a piece of content … and that’s what this story absolutely is, is a piece of content. It’s very memorable. She spent a lot of money on it. The story was so strongly told. The piece of content is intended to express your values. You have to make sure it expresses your actual values. Otherwise, I just don’t see how this is going to work at all. She’s not intending to fool people. I think that the message just got maybe a little lost in translation.

I’ll give you a quote from David Armano. David Armano is the global strategy directory for Edelman. Edelman is a massive PR firm, or as they now market themselves, a ‘communications marketing firm.’ Very interesting choice of language, about the term ‘brand activism’ — “when a brand decides to take a definitive stance on a societal issue and bring it front and center into the message or value proposition.” David Armano says that he thinks it’s a good idea. He thinks it’s a really good idea for brands to go ahead and participate in this brand activism and say what you mean, say where you stand.

But notice some of the language, ‘definitive stance’ and ‘bringing it front and center.’ When your stance is something nobody can figure out after reading four or five articles about it that are laced with your quotes, that would not be the gold standard.

The Compass That Always Points the Right Direction for Your Business (Spoiler: It’s Your Audience)

So final analysis as I see it — should we or should we not advocate certain specific political positions in our content marketing? Should we go there or not? I think it depends. Everything depends in content marketing. In my opinion, yes, if it’s relevant. I feel like that’s kind of a no-brainer.

I’ll give you an example. Copyblogger posts essentially zero political content. We have gone on record twice supporting net neutrality. And we will go on record again supporting net neutrality, probably later this year. It’s extremely relevant to our audience. It’s political in the sense that it’s a law, right? You have lawmakers who support it or lawmakers who oppose it.

We think one of those positions makes much more sense for our audience and for our business. That one is pretty simple. If it’s relevant, if it’s highly relevant to your audience and they care about it a lot, then you should talk about it because it makes sense.

I would also say, if it really feels, if you feel culled, this is very personal — if you just feel as the voice of your business, you’re the business owner, the CEO, or what have you, if it just feels like there’s a giant error of omission there if you don’t speak up, then I think you should speak up because it’s going to show.

I don’t think it’s mandatory, necessarily, for every business to take a brand activist position on political matters. It just depends a lot. But remember that point — the border might cross you. It might not be that you cross a line politically, but it might be that a statement that you make, that you think is fairly mainstream, will take some heat.

What’s mainstream today might be taken by some people as being really radical tomorrow. In my experience, and in my view of dozens, hundreds of businesses, that just tends to work out just totally fine. If you are speaking from a position of integrity and if you know that you and your audience share that point of view, then if you take some heat, if you get some people who are angry with you, the odds are very great they were never your customer in the first place.

I would encourage you to be as brave as you can. You don’t have to seek it out, but if it comes for you, I would just advise courage, steadfastness, and integrity.

It’s always about your who. It’s always about who you serve. Values in business — talking about values, sharing your values, and all of that stuff — if it’s not a shared expression between you and your customers and prospects, then it’s kind of pointless. It’s just kind of grandstanding.

If your audience is with you, then don’t back down off of it. You don’t need to wimp out on it. Frankly, I just don’t think there’s any avoiding some blowback in this climate. Things are running very emotionally right now. The climate is very intense right now. I will tell you that the sites, the businesses, the content websites, podcasts, and blogs that I see that are trying to play it totally safe, and they’ve just turned themselves into these bland piles of leftover cream of wheat. That’s not a solution.

That’s a solution to be forgotten. That’s a solution to be overlooked. And it’s not going to keep you safe. It’s going to do the exact opposite because there is no safety in your business unless you can rally your audience and get them to support you. So that’s how I see it. Very interested to hear what you think about it. Drop a comment to Copyblogger.FM, and you can always Tweet me @SoniaSimone.

Thanks, guys, and take care.