Most Brands Avoid Getting Political in Super Bowl Ads. This Year Didn’t Really Change That

In the past, however, some companies haven't shied away from the potential risk

a door in the wall along the US border with Mexico
In 2017, 84 Lumber's ad portrayed the harrowing journey of an apparent Mexican immigrant and her daughter to the U.S. border. 84 Lumber, Getty Images

There are inherent risks in running ads with political undertones (or overtones), especially in such a cozy environment as the Super Bowl.

Perhaps you’re wearing stretchy pants. Maybe you have a bingo card to track the ads. You’re there to see a game, relax with friends, and enjoy some cheesy snacks and adult beverages—not be inundated with political advertisements. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so notable that two presidential candidates—Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg—ran Super Bowl ads this year (officially, commercials that air after kickoff and before the game clock runs out).

“As consumers, we vote with our wallets; we choose brands that resonate with us,” said David A. Schweidel, a marketing professor at Emory University. “For brands that take on that political stance, they better know what they’re doing.”

Last year, there were about 40 minutes of brand advertisements, with about 10 additional minutes of network promos. This year, that increased to 42 minutes and 40 seconds of brand advertisements—the highest amount from paid sponsors in history—with about nine additional minutes of network promos, according to Kantar.

It was a lot of potential ad time that could veer into politics.

But, as nearly every year, brands avoided tackling politics with heavy overtones or undertones at last night’s game. Arguably the strongest political undercurrents came from the halftime show (and the spots from politicians themselves).

The first taste of politics came from Trump’s 30-second Super Bowl ad featuring former inmate Alice Johnson reacting to being granted clemency by the president after lobbying by Kim Kardashian West. The NFL itself also had a spot featuring former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who told the story of a police shooting that left his cousin, Corey Jones, fatally wounded. But otherwise, most brands avoided wading into anything too political.

“You’re in an entertaining genre, a sports genre,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “In that genre, people don’t want to break out of the frame they’re in. You can get by with some quick telegraphy about good things, but it’s not the time for a biographical ad.”

The halftime performance, featuring Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, took oblique political jabs. For one, Lopez came out wearing a coat designed with the flag of Puerto Rico. At another point in the performance, children who sang along with the performers emerged out of what appeared to be cages.

After halftime, viewers were treated to the 60-second ad from Bloomberg’s campaign, which focused on his views on gun reform. But these political themes were exceptions, not the trend.

While brands largely stuck to humor and nostalgia this year to bring some levity to an otherwise bleak news cycle, there’s not much precedence for politically tinged ads, and most brands avoided the issue altogether. However, there have been a few examples of what political brand ads can look like, including a number of them from 2017—the year Trump took office.

Tim Tebow made gargantuan waves when he appeared in an anti-abortion advertisement that aired precisely 10 years ago. In the ad, the Heisman Trophy winner appeared with his mother in an ad paid for by the conservative Christian group Focus.

In 2017, 84 Lumber showed a 90-second advertisement called “The Journey Begins” that portrayed the harrowing trek of an apparent Mexican immigrant and her daughter to the U.S. border.

In 2017, Audi advocated for equal pay in an ad called “Daughter,” which drew a fair amount of feedback—both positive and negative.

In 2017, indie hair-care line It’s a 10 Haircare announced its expansion into the men’s category in a Super Bowl ad with the line, “America, we’re in for at least four more years of awful hair.”

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.