The Politicization of Product Advertising

With over 100 million viewers a year, the Super Bowl demands the attention of diehard football fans and casual viewers alike, as the four-hour televised event seamlessly weaves together football, a halftime concert, and captivating advertising. What motivates such a large group of people to tune-in? Commercials. Valued at $5 million, these 30-second advertising slots provide the perfect platform for the newest humorous, heartwarming, chilling, and often provocative commercials. One ad that was particularly controversial was 84 Lumber’s, a building materials supply company, which featured a mother and daughter traveling through Mexico. Although the story ended prematurely in its Super Bowl 2017 appearance, the online version showed the mother and daughter walk until they reached the US-Mexico border wall, which stopped them in their tracks. However, they soon found an immense wooden door that they were able to open, and as they finally reached American soil, the message “the will to succeed is always welcome here” loomed above their heads. Then, in the final seconds, the film cuts to the 84 Lumber logo. Causing some to claim it was a subtle jab at Trump’s plan to build the border wall, it seemed first and foremost an ad that supported immigration, with the building materials at 84 Lumber taking a back seat. 

84 Lumber CEO Maggie Hardy Magerko stated that ad was more a demonstration of values like “grit, determination and hard work” than political commentary. However, the overall consensus of viewers was that the ad was politically charged and aimed to celebrate immigration, a notion that is particularly controversial for a televised event that appeals to a politically and socially diverse demographic. Socially controversial advertising has been around for decades. From the provocative “Smart Meets Sexy” GoDaddy commercial to the jarring “Boy” Nationwide ad on preventable childhood death, advertisements have long sought to evoke feelings of compassion, lust, humor, and shock to establish an emotional connection with the consumer. This often requires straying from traditional, socially acceptable topics. Politics is one such topic that is increasingly breaking the barrier of what is considered taboo in the advertising industry, with 84 Lumber’s ad, Airbnb’s “We Accept” commercial, and It’s a 10 Haircare’s attack on Trump’s unique hairstyle offering only a small sample of the politically-charged ads in circulation. 

Why advertising is delving into the realm of politics at this particular time is self-evident. Advertisements generally seek to tap into pop culture, making this is the ideal moment to integrate political statements into advertisements, as politics has permeated virtually all areas of pop culture, from musicians’ lyrics to actors’ Oscar acceptance speeches. Typically, advertisers shy away from incorporating politics into selling their products as it can alienate consumers. However, especially with products that disproportionately appeal to millennials, avoiding politics could alienate consumers even more. Aside from causing viewers to feel an emotional connection to the product through its tone or subject, a political advertisement also effectively lures consumers if it inspires feelings of comfort by portraying shared values with the consumer. For the civic-minded, politically-active millennial after a divisive election, some of these values are now political. According to The Innovation Group’s study titled The Political Consumer, 78% of millennials agree that companies should act to address important societal issues, 53% typically only buy products from brands that share their values, 51% appreciate when brands take a political stance when advertising, and 65% trust the political content that brands share on social media. Millennials have a higher amount of loyalty and trust in brands that take political stances than any other generation, namely the Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Z.

In the turbulent political climate of today, advertisements are using political messages to target millions of young people. Some, like 84 Lumber, may use a politically contentious topic such as immigration to promote the ideals of hard work and determination. Others, such as Airbnb’s “We Accept” commercial, may only indirectly present a political message addressing the need for diversity. From the subtlest to the most direct, ads with political messages need their values or ultimate aims of political messages to be inclusion and acceptance if they are going to attract and not alienate the most consumers. Some may say the incorporation of a political message distracts viewers from the product itself or can alienate the consumer. However, for millennials in particular, this declaration of a political stance can dramatically transform consumers from possessing feelings of ambivalence to feelings of absolute loyalty to a product, as, like they are activists for the causes they support, they will become activists for the politically active products they purchase.