Commentary: Why Super Bowl ad buyers risked a public stand

Super Bowl Ads-Airbnb
A still image from Airnb's Bowl 51 commercial.

The 2017 Super Bowl included a number of advertisements with international themes. Anheuser-Busch's ad showed the difficulties of emigrating from Germany encountered by Adolphus Busch in 1857. The company 84 Lumber depicted a Mexican mother and daughter attempting to find work in the United States and encountering a wall. Other ads were more general: Coca-Cola's reairing of "America the Beautiful" from 2014, with the song sung in many languages, and Airbnb's many types of faces with the words "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."

These messages are more pointed than we are used to seeing during the Super Bowl, but while atypical, that pointed tone was effective and resonated with consumers - not because the ads are contentious but because they speak to something all Americans feel strongly about: not being told what to do.

The ads were clearly making political or social statements (although virtually all of the companies said they were not), probably in response to the travel ban in particular or at least in reaction to the fear that the United States is becoming less accepting of immigrants and diversity. In general, for-profit companies avoid mixing contention with profit, especially when the ad buys are expensive.

But one question remains for consumers: Why would companies take a stand in such a public way with the possibility of alienating potential buyers? There are two main reasons.

First, people persuasively exhibit a psychological response termed "reactance." When there is an extreme command, it is likely that people will respond by disliking whatever attitude is being expressed in the command. For example, suppose I said you have to wear turquoise tomorrow, because I made a rule that you have to abide by and it is set in stone by me. You would be inclined to want to wear a color different from turquoise, because my extremity would cause you to have reactance.

Reactance is borne from valuing freedom and from a desire for balance. Whenever a request seems unreasonable, people are going to want to pull the entire system back toward the middle to adjust.

President Trump's executive order on immigration was viewed by some as quite extreme, with visuals attached: people unable to return home to the United States, children detained, etc. The ban probably induced dissonance in customers and companies. It definitely touched on some of the freedoms people in this country hold especially dear, because most of us were immigrants.

The companies made the ads because they felt psychologically and ethically compelled to make them, and they were more pointed than usual because they were balancing out the extremity of the ban. The companies are unlikely to be punished because their sentiments are echoed by many of their consumers. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people have now viewed 84 Lumber's ad in its entirety on the company's website and YouTube.

The second reason why companies take a stand is that all large companies are international. They trade across countries, hire from different countries, and sell in different countries. Companies rely on the government and society supporting an international focus.

Many corporations are frightened of the nationalism and anti-trade bent that seems to be taking over the country. This bent is oddly anti-capitalist and could be dangerous for the economy, which a company such as Coca-Cola knows. They are likely to object to what the ban represents in business terms, for them and for the economy.

We are living in a strange time for the American economy. Marketers are as aware of this strangeness as anyone. The good news is that the messaging we get even from as traditionally a silly and forgettable venue as Super Bowl ads becomes more engaging and poignant when the motivation for the ad goes beyond simple sales.

Julie Irwin is a professor of marketing in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. julie.irwin@mccombs.utexas.edu