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For a lot of people tuning into the Super Bowl this Sunday, the high-priced advertisements will be the big draw — and there are early indications the polarizing political climate may affect their tone and tenor.
This year, with overall spending on the Super Bowl reportedly down, and the nation arguably more deeply split than any post-election electorate in modern history, advertisers will have to walk a tightrope not to inflame any particular segment of their audience.
"The ads are very expensive and everyone wants to be part of that Super Bowl conversation," cultural strategist Denitria Lewis, who has been been working in advertising for over 15 years, told NBC News Thursday. "It's the one time of year that advertising is viewed way more closely globally."
Beer company Anheuser-Busch, which is a mainstay in the pricey Super Bowl advertising sweepstakes, will air an ad about the inspirational journey of its co-founder — Adolphus Busch — from Germany to St. Louis in 1857. As an immigrant's story, it has drawn comparisons to President Trump's controversial travel ban imposed on seven Muslim-majority countries last week.
The minute-long ad, entitled “Born the Hard Way,” shows Busch being berated by hostile Americans, who scream "you’re not wanted here,” and "go back home." Ultimately, his historic partnership with Eberhard Anheuser is portrayed, hinting at an eventual triumph over adversity:
Although Ricardo Marques, the vice president for Budweiser in the U.S, has cautioned AdWeek that the ad has "really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country,” that hasn't stopped the far right website Brietbart (formerly run by top White House advisor Steven Bannon) from attacking it for being "pro-immigration" or the AV Club from predicting that it will "ruin red-state Super Bowl parties."
Another ad from Audi, entitled "Daughter," uses a proud father's internal monologue while he watches his child compete in a go-cart race to make a poignant point about equal pay:
"Pay equality is a big message for a big stage,” Loren Angelo, VP of marketing at Audi of America, recently told AdWeek. “We’re a brand that’s ahead of the curve and looking toward the future, just like our next generation of buyers.”
But this spot has also provoked a heated reaction, with one online diatribe calling it "feminist propaganda" and more like "a Tampon commercial than a car commercial."
"I'd be surprised if there wasn't positive and negative feedback," a source closely involved with the Audi campaign told NBC News. "Right now what they want to focus on is making sure the haters that are out there don't overwhelm the positivity of the message and its theme, which is 'drive progress.'"
According to Lewis, Super Bowl advertisers are always hoping to avoid "ostracizing their base," but it's easier said than done.
So far, one advertiser — 84 Lumber — has reportedly been sent back to the drawing board because their proposed 90-second ad was reportedly labeled too controversial.
The ad, which showed a Spanish-speaking mother and daughter confronting a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, will still air but without the barrier sequence — which could easily be interpreted as a dig at Trump's oft-debated proposal for combating illegal immigration.
Viewers will still get to see the full ad in its entirety on the lumber company's website.
Lewis believes that if a company is willing to take a principled stand, they ought to stick by it, or run the risk of alienating people who might be intrigued by their brand.
"If you are an advertiser who has been consistently vocal [on social issues] there is going to be folks who already recognize you for that and they will also be watchdogs looking out for whatever thing they're against. You can't be worried as an advertiser that someone is going to dislike the stance you've made. If you're gonna be making a major political statement during the Super Bowl, I would hope that it's something you're not going to turn on a dime for."
Super Bowl ads have stoked controversy in the recent past. For instance, there was former NFL QB Tim Tebow's anti-abortion ad for Focus on the Family, co-starring his mother, in 2010. And on the other end of the political spectrum there was the 2004 ad, ultimately rejected, from liberal activist group MoveOn.org that sought to highlight the “bad economic policies of President George W. Bush.”
Even when ads aren't overtly partisan, they can generate fallout, such as a 2011 Pepsi ad which was accused of trafficking in unflattering stereotypes of African-American women, or a 2007 Snickers ad that was widely deemed to be insensitive to the LGBT community.
A 2012 ad from Chrysler featuring Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood, became election campaign fodder because some critics interpreted it as a tacit election year endorsement of President Barack Obama's auto bailout, although the conservative actor turned out to be a staunch supporter of the Republican ticket that year.
And if this year's ads don't get tongues wagging, there's also Lady Gaga's highly anticipated halftime show performance which she and the NFL can't promise will be apolitical.
Some of her fans have already said they will be disappointed if she doesn't make some kind of political statement, while a Change.org petition has tried to lobby the NFL to cancel her performance at the last minute, arguing that the outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter is "undeserving" of the Super Bowl platform.