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Super Bowl Ads Reflect America’s Conflicted Sentiments

The match-up for Super Bowl LI has been set, with the New England Patriots squaring off against the Atlanta Falcons — but the commercial lineup isn't as clear.

In spite of an improving economy and a projected audience of more than 100 million, experts say there are indications that marketers are holding back this year. The election of Donald Trump as president might have cheered Wall Street, but it appears Madison Avenue has mixed feelings.

"It really seems people are being a little hesitant about committing to Super Bowl ads this year," said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, noting the slower pace of ad buys this year. "This year the polarization of the country is so apparent, and that will clearly have an impact on how companies think about and approach the Super Bowl."

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Some of the cooling effect also might be because last year's Super Bowl was a milestone, the 50th anniversary of the game, but industry observers said the current cultural mood is playing a role, too.

Will Carmakers Sit It Out?

"To not think that there's a Trump effect here would be crazy. I don't think there's any doubt about it," said Michael Bernacchi, professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy. He noted that fewer automakers made early commitments to advertise this year, suggesting that Trump's threats of trade barriers for cars made outside the U.S. could have a chilling effect.

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"If I was an automaker, I'd consider sitting it out," he said. With a little more than a week to go before the game, six car brands are slated to run ads; last year, nine auto brands made an appearance.

Despite the buoyant post-election stock market, marketing experts say even brands outside the auto category are hedging their bets, hesitant to spend potentially more than $5 million — plus production and digital promotional costs that could easily double that figure — for a 30-second commercial, in the face of uncertainty about what lies ahead for the nation's economy.

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Last year, total ad spending during the game reached $370 million, or $445 million including pre- and post-game commercials, according to Kantar Media.

Political Minefield

"They're a little nervous about how things are going to go in the country," Calkins said. "Also, they might be nervous about avoiding conflict," he added.

In a polarized nation with a mercurial leader, brands are wary of broadcasting anything that could make them the target of a boycott or a Twitter rant from Donald Trump. "I think every brand right now is nervous about offending the Trump administration and I think brands are very nervous about being perceived as being anti-Trump," Calkins said.

Some experts predicted that most of the big brands would play it safe this year, shying away from provocative content or topics that could be flashpoints, like immigration, but that a few would be willing to court controversy in a bid to stand out from the crowd.

"The modern zeitgeist with this focus on polarity and politics — that's kind of the main item on the conversational agenda. It might be interesting to see if someone picks up on that issue, maybe to calm the waters a bit or maybe to add fuel to the fire," said James Fisher, professor and chair of the marketing department at Saint Louis University.

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One first-time advertiser seemed willing to roll the dice. Building materials supplier 84 Lumber said it created an ad that was rejected by the network.

"They determined some of the imagery, including 'the wall' would be too controversial," the company's ad agency Brunner said in a statement. Subsequently, 84 Lumber said it would run a 90-second ad just before halftime focusing instead on recruiting and careers in the building industry.

"I think now with Trump having won, there's going to possibly be that sentiment of, 'We're going to reclaim middle America,'" said Rick Burton, Falk professor of sport management at Syracuse University.

"If you're trying to talk to middle America, you have permission to have that anger or that frustration," he said. "The advertisers who have now taken the temperature of America have seen that speaking to the middle can be more powerful than speaking to the coasts."

Making America Great

Brands have certainly embraced patriotic or pro-America themes in the past. Fiat Chrysler tapped celebrities like rapper Eminem and Clint Eastwood to tout its resilience in the aftermath of the auto industry bailouts with the tag line, "Imported From Detroit."

"I don't think they would run that today in the current environment. It was a more bipartisan message at that time," said Philip Koesterer, director of strategic planning at Ogilvy & Mather and assistant adjunct teaching professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Car-mat manufacturer WeatherTech — which is returning to advertise in this year's game for the fourth time — made its American manufacturing a key part of its brand identity. And for the past two years, AB InBev, parent company of Anheuser-Busch has run Budweiser ads that pooh-poohed craft beers and imports.

This year, Anheuser-Busch said the ads for its flagship beer will "draw inspiration from the story of its founder, Adolphus Busch," a German-born immigrant. AB said the debut Super Bowl ad for its lower-priced Busch brand would present the beer as "a brand that stays true to its name." Bud Light's 60-second commercial will promote a new tag line, "Famous Among Friends."

But even such a positive message has the potential to hit a wrong note today if viewers consider it pandering, Koesterer warned.

"People will resonate with some form of 'let's come together,' but it has to be appropriate for the brands and the consumer. The danger is when it feels unearned," he said. "I don't think the divisiveness is going away."