On the night that 97 companies filed an amicus brief opposing President Trump's executive order on immigration, the 51st Super Bowl was peppered with ads doing much the same. This was an unusually freighted event — so unusual that Pope Francis even made a speech for the occasion: "Great sporting events like today's Super Bowl are highly symbolic," he said. "By participating in sports, we are able to transcend our own self-interest — and, in a healthy way, we learn to sacrifice, to grow in fidelity, and to respect the rules."
Indeed, the Pope wasn't the only one seeking to lecture the president — and the America he claims to represent.
Airbnb ran an ad consisting of a montage of faces of different ethnicities with the hashtag #weaccept:
Audi offered a story about a father agonizing over what to tell his daughter — who's competing in a downhill cart race — about society's tendency to value her less because she's female.
It's a 10 Hair Care ran an ad containing a reference to Donald Trump's unusual hair — which gives way to a kind of celebration of "great hair" of all kinds and textures, belonging to all ethnicities:
Budweiser ran an ad featuring their founder Adolphus Busch's journey to the United States and his struggles as an immigrant who was made to feel unwelcome. The ad — actually quite a tame and almost stereotypically American story about an immigrant — provoked a backlash from the right (and efforts at a boycott). Budweiser appeared unmoved: "This is the story of our founder and his pursuit of the American Dream," the company tweeted.
Coke recycled their 2014 Super Bowl ad for their pre-game commercial — it features a montage of people of different races and ethnicities singing "America the Beautiful" in English, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, etc. This, too, angered some Trump supporters. One tweeted that Coca-Cola "bows to leftism" and "spits on America by presenting the #NationalAnthem in foreign languages."
By far the most political ad came from hardware chain 84 Lumber. The spot features a mother and daughter trying to emigrate to America from Mexico for a better life. It's wrenching to watch, and the commercial was initially rejected by Fox because it contained a literal wall — a clear reference to Trump's proposal. "The will to succeed is welcome here," the ad concludes:
The spot certainly got people's attention: 84 Lumber's website crashed from too many visitors, and the company's social media account was active all night, thanking those who liked it and doubling down on its pro-immigrant message. When angry viewers tweeted that they planned to boycott in the future — "Your anti American add [sic] will cost you," one person wrote — 84 Lumber Company replied: "84 Lumber is better when we look beyond stereotypes. If that changes ur views of our products & services, that's ur right." "I hope your CEO gets mugged by an undocumented American," a different user responded. 84 Lumber Company carried on, unfazed.
Even the less overtly confrontational ads had resonance and sometimes edge. A Kia ad starring Melissa McCarthy represented her as an embattled "ecowarrior" trying to save everything from rhinos to the polar ice caps and failing while "I Need A Hero" played in the background. A TurboTax ad featured Humpty Dumpty who has a great fall while sitting on a wall doing his taxes. The McDonald's ad featured a remarkably diverse set of actors, and even Skittles — remember when Skittles were a metaphor for refugees? — made an appearance.
This is a moment so paranoid about potential symbolism that we see it everywhere. That paranoia has us constantly asking whether everything is political. Maybe that partially explains why some Republicans got furious over an unremarkable Budweiser ad about a typical immigrant, or a Coke ad in which people are singing a patriotic song.
Sentiments that once scanned as bland American feelgoodery now seem — to the far right — like hateful anti-Trump provocations. Corporations with massive marketing budgets are aware of this, and decided they didn't care. That is interesting.
Given how unreliable polls have turned out to be, brands have become a new, ultra-capitalist gauge of Trump's popularity. This administration likes to insist that Trump is popular. Some polls suggest he really is. But brands act from a profit motive. Ethics will always come second. The fact that so many companies have taken this approach suggests a huge swath of corporate America has decided that the opposition is both more motivated and more profitable than the president. Uber lost 200,000 accounts thanks to protests. Nordstrom's and Bloomingdale's are ending their relationship with Ivanka Trump's fashion line. Harvey Davidson asked Trump to cancel his visit to Milwaukee because the company was worried about protests. Brands — at least publicly — are bailing on Trump.
There are hard limits to how much you can glean from a Super Bowl spectacle. But it's some kind of bellwether that, amid all that consumerist competitive worship, with everyone watching, these brands decided to curry favor with the protesting public over the pouting president.