Is it polite for brands to talk politics?

When joining the national conversation, should brands lean left, right or remain defiantly apolitical? As Toby Waller discovers, the early buzz of Budweiser's 2017 Super Bowl campaign could leave a nasty hangover

Every February, the marketing world turns its focus to the Super Bowl. Not for the game – although this year’s was a corker, with an over-time upset befitting our chaotic and unpredictable post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Instead, marketeers adopt the Claude Debussy philosophy for the Super Bowl, where their music is “the space between the notes”.

Super Bowl ads are as much a conversation piece as those crucial late points scored by the New England Patriots, and although 2017’s mixed bag don’t represent a stellar year for ‘most-searched’ or #AdvertisingFails, one pitch seems to have dominated the conversation more than any other.

Budweiser’s ‘Born The Hard Way’ ad tells the tale of German-born founder Adolphus Busch, mocked on his arrival as an immigrant to America, before meeting Eberhard Anheuser and founding the company that bears their names. It’s a compelling story – especially when the subject of immigration is being so vigorously debated, both in the US and globally.

However, Budweiser’s ad is already the subject of a #BoycottBudweiser campaign from an increasingly vocal audience – potentially led by the so-called ‘alt-right’ – who disagree with a strongly political message coming from a beer brand, in a major sports event that typically brings the country together.

Discussing American identity

‘Born The Hard Way’ is not Budweiser’s first toe in the murky waters of US politics and national identity. In the heart (and heat) of the 2016 Presidential campaign, Budweiser rebranded its cans to read ‘America’ – a cloyingly twee build on the brand’s long-standing ‘This Bud’s For You’ tag, that aimed to bridge the rapidly growing political divide.

Even with all the vicious back biting on the campaign trail, surely no patriotic citizen could deny the chance to celebrate ‘America’? Well, as you’d imagine in today’s world of online snark, for every celebratory tweet, there was another that pointed out the irony of a company founded by German immigrants, now owned by the Brazilian InBev corporation, celebrating American identity.

With ‘Born The Hard Way’, Budweiser went a step further – it took a side. As immigration is perhaps the biggest topic in an overflowing raft of post-election talking points, it’s an idea that seems like a no-brainer. Use the genuine story of your immigrant founders, and portray your company on the side of the righteous.

Taking on a powerful, vocal lobby

But while most people would applaud the Budweiser ad’s sentiment, its overt political and social message has caught the ire of a growing community that disagrees with the consensus on topics such as immigration, and vigorously debates what they perceive is an excess of political correctness over free speech. Not for nothing have they coined phrases such as #FakeNews and the slur of modern times – ‘Snowflake’.

They may be a small minority of the 63 million people who voted for Trump, but they are an increasingly powerful lobby. And, while you may disagree with both the topic and tone of their conversation, it’s clear that they are gaining confidence in both their voice and outlets for their message. 

Already, they’re picking at the exaggerated telling of Adolphus Busch’s story in order to deflate its message. It won’t be soon before they start to holler about #FakeAdvertising.

The difference between pride and politics

So, should Budweiser have jumped into the immigration debate, and with such conviction? Almost certainly, yes.

Budweiser weren’t the only brand to touch the nation’s pulse with their Super Bowl campaign at a crucial time in the national US conversation. The likes of Audi, Airbnb and Coca-Cola also celebrated inclusiveness and diversity in good measure, and to significant acclaim – although Audi is also feeling the heat for promoting the ‘radical’ suggestion of gender equality in pay.

Brands – like citizens, in our larger society – should never cower in the face of inequality and oppression, and can be a powerful and compelling voice in a debate, regardless of the beneficial or negative effect on their image perception and their bottom line. On this point, the likes of Budweiser and Audi did the conversation proud.

Politics is a piranha pit

But, as brands are now finding, you need to take care when leaping into uncharted and murky political waters. There are sharks in there, and they’re willing to bite – hard. Look at how viciously targeted Kellogg's, just one of 800 companies that withdrew advertising from the controversial website.

Perhaps the question for brands is instead – to paraphrase Ian Malcolm from the film Jurassic Park: “not whether they could, but whether they should”. 

Brands offer a distinctly apolitical position in our society. When we disagree on so many things, many would argue that we should be able to just enjoy our car, our beer, or our sport without a moral debate. In marketing, as in polite conversation, there may be no such thing as political niceties. 

As Joseph Anthony, CEO of New York-based marketing agency Hero Group, said at the time of Budweiser’s ‘America’ campaign: “There were few aspects of society that had seemed immune from the binary and partisan political climate of 2016. Thanks to Budweiser, we can now cross beer off that increasingly small list.”

With the political heat not looking like dying down any time soon, it will be interesting to see whether Budweiser’s Super Bowl is fuel to the flames of the debate, or a flash in the political pan.

You can follow Toby Waller on Twitter @tobywaller