In years past, Super Bowl ads have functioned as a kind of primal scream for America’s inner self, raging against the tyranny of everything from eco-friendly cars to hunger to our gridlocked bowels. They’ve eschewed hope and change in favor of Viagra and a cryogenically frozen Scott Baio, often crystallizing the idea that being great again means going backwards. They’ve assured Americans that Chevy trucks and high-sodium corn chips are the cure for all that ails us.
But this year, things were very different.
Super Bowl LI, coming as it does after one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent memory, was never going to be able to put politics aside. While consumers have become increasingly aware of the stakes of, say, shopping at Nordstrom or requesting an Uber, one of the most notorious pop-cultural figures of the last three decades sits in the Oval Office, having won an election by the same message that Super Bowl ads have previously tended to preach. This year, most brands were savvy enough to realize that a change was necessary. Their 2017 theme, in a nutshell? Escape to the future.
The America being presented in 30-second fragments was basically a utopian paradise, one in which cops and robbers are brought together by Skittles, the glowing cube from the “Hotline Bling” video does your taxes, and Humpty Dumpty isn’t ruined by medical bills. It was the living continuation of #StrongerTogether. It was a warm embrace from globalism, multiculturalism, technological innovation, and Jeffrey Tambor. It was completely divorced from reality, but that wasn’t the point.
Much of the pre-Super Bowl focus had been on Budweiser’s ad and its determinedly pro-immigration message, highlighting how America’s most iconic beer was created by a German immigrant. This, inevitably led to a backlash (#boycottbudwiser is currently trending, #spelling having gone out the same window as #facts), but it portended a number of ads in which corporations seemed to position themselves in opposition to the anti-immigration policies of President Trump. There was this spot for Google Home, accompanied by a whistled rendition of “Country Roads (Take Me Home),” which showcased a number of diverse American households united by their technology.
It was an open-hearted, inclusive vision of America, marred only slightly by the fact that the ad set off Google Home devices all over the country. And its sentiments were echoed in a Coca-Cola ad that aired before the game, which originally ran in 2014 but was timely enough to get a rerun. Unfortunately, “America the Beautiful,” sung in a multitude of languages, by people of all creeds and colors, proved to be just as divisive in 2017 as it was three years ago. (The brands might have their vision of what the country looks like, but not everyone is buying.) Still, Coca-Cola doubled down with a new spot in which their product goes perfectly with a multitude of cuisines, adding togetherness (and high-fructose corn syrup) to the great American melting pot.
But if Coca-Cola’s criticism of a more insular America was implicit, there were a number of companies that weren’t afraid to voice their opposition in more considered terms. Like Airbnb, which directly objected to the president’s travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries. Over a montage of different faces, superimposed words wrote out a message: “We believe, no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”
Then there was the ad aired by the Pennsylvania building materials company 84 Lumber, which bought itself not just a Super Bowl spot but also an unprecedented spike in Google traffic via its ad, whose ending Fox deemed too political to be aired. In the commercial, a mother and daughter embark on a treacherous journey away from home, through rainstorms and over deserts, jumping trains and dodging coyotes. A prompt directed viewers to the URL journey84.com to see the conclusion of the ad, in which the pair are confronted by a huge, seemingly insurmountable wall.
After the little girl waves a flag she’s stitched together from remnants found on her journey, the wall suddenly reveals a door, which allows the pair through, and a message: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.” Again, it was America’s best, most idealistic self on display, and again, it wasn’t entirely popular.
There are plenty who think politics have no place at the Super Bowl, and that ads should stick to their primary purpose of selling things by pretending to be entertainment. For those people, there were a handful of holdouts from bygone days: Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider Mercedes ad, Kristen Schaal’s 50 Shades-inspired T-Mobile spots, and Wix.com’s superhero bonanza starring Jason Statham and Gal Gadot as two people who can’t even go to dinner without nuking the restaurant.
But these were notable exceptions, as many ads sought to offer an out from the reality of the present by looking to the future. In between the action on the field, many of the commercials were a wild and befuddling montage of drones, Transformers, and flying cars. John Malkovich trying to buy his domain name was the sole luddite holdout. Even Doritos, which can typically be relied upon to bring the loudest and most irritating ad of the night, opted out of buying an ad this year, although they popped up in a spot where chips are restocked by Amazon Prime drones.
It wasn’t so much a clash of cultures as a public brawl in which Silicon Valley and America’s favorite beverages fought over which one could more publicly reject a Trumpian vision of America. The heightened political stakes meant that many ads that might have soared in previous years (I’m looking at you, Sexy Mr. Clean, and you, Snickers’s oddly muted live experiment in which Adam Driver wrecked a set) flew under the radar. And in some ways, that’s heartening, since brands mostly won by appealing to America’s better angels rather than, say, our unspoken desire to watch a grotesque puppy/monkey/baby hybrid dance.
The America of the 2017 Super Bowl ads promised, as Comcast Xfinity spelled out, that “the future is awesome.” Even Febreze sought to unite us by pointing out, mostly correctly, that everybody poops the same way. But in a media landscape in which even Morgan Freeman becomes a lightning rod, it’s fair to assume that we’ve got a ways to go.