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Grant Whittington headshot

The NFL’s Politicization: Super Bowl Ads Anger and Inspire


I hold that the toughest balancing act to play when watching the Super Bowl is knowing when to talk and when to listen to the TV. The play-by-play commentary is insightful and useful and the halftime show is always intriguing, even if it’s oftentimes underwhelming. So what do we skimp?

Remarkably, most of us choose to sacrifice the commentary so we can pay razor-sharp attention to the commercials. Year in and year out, they’re sure to insight belly laughs, head scratches and inspiring, memorable moments. For $5 million per 30 seconds of screen time, Super Bowl advertisements have become must-see TV. And as the NFL gains notoriety as an ever-politicized organization, the ads become more and more noteworthy.

A 2017 analysis conducted by The New York Times revealed that, save for Trump Hotels, the NFL is the only non-news media organization in the top 10 of most polarizing brands measured by favorability among President Trump and Hillary Clinton voters. This report was conducted on the heels of the divisive protest of NFL players, particularly African Americans, kneeling during the National Anthem.

The kneeling, started by now blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, was already headlining news when Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that [expletive] off the field right now.’” Conservative football fans rallied around the president, vowing to boycott the NFL as long as players were kneeling. It was un-American to not participate in the National Anthem; it was an outrage against the veterans and armed forces who sacrificed their lives for the flag that the players were now disrespecting, they said.

The NFL owners, one full season (another Tom Brady Super Bowl-appearing season, might I add) later, unanimously banned on-field kneeling. Liberals dissented; they argued that kneeling was never about the flag - isn’t the right to free speech and protest what the armed forces are protecting and advocating for in their duty? The NFL was caught in a tug-of-war battle to appease one of the most politically split fan bases in all of sports.

A FiveThirtyEight analysis shows that professional basketball fans are more left-leaning and likely to be outspoken critics of Trump while college football fans tend to be more conservative and thus harsh of the kneeling protests. The NFL, however, is the least partisan fan base of those studied, despite having the largest share of Google searches. This creates an environment where NFL policies are likely to irritate a large share of the viewers, whether conservative or liberal.

Author Mark Leibovich of the newly released Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times details the recent politicization of the NFL and influence Trump has on the culture of the sport. “You have [the owners] sitting around saying, ‘What are we going to do to make sure Donald doesn’t pipe up again? If he pipes up again, we’ve got problems,’” Leibovich told The Atlantic after obtaining a recording of concerned NFL owners talking about the kneeling controversy.

Not so much as a month later, Nike unveiled a powerful new partnership and commercial featuring former NFL quarterback Kaepernick, the brainchild and face of the kneeling protest. Boycotts, again, were relentless and widespread. Consumers were burning Nike gear, snipping the logos off of apparel and spreading the hashtag #JustBurnIt to rival Nike’s famed “Just Do It” slogan. Nike sales, much to boycotters dismay, actually increased following the release of the ad. But the fact remains that Kaepernick remains an NFL free agent, owing largely to the baggage and controversy that comes with signing a player who is currently in the thick of a legal battle against the NFL.

At the time of this article, the Gillette video has 1.2 million thumbs down on YouTube (compared to 670,000 thumbs up votes) and dozens upon dozens of comments lambasting the Boston-based shaving company. A common theme seemed to prevail when sifting through the comments: Gillette is a shaving company, why don’t they just stick to making razor blades?

There will, inevitably, be at least a handful of commercials that feature politicized messages. And to mirror that, there will also inevitably be disgruntled viewers who don’t understand why a company needs to stick their neck into a topic that doesn’t coincide with their business plan.

But why shouldn’t brands use their platform and millions of advertisement money to speak for what they believe, spark conversation and, most importantly, be on top of consumers’ minds? And why shouldn’t athletes use their platform and influence to do the same? Some people, I suppose, just enjoy athletes staying in their lanes, failing to even respect the most admirable philanthropic endeavors from stars. Look no further than NBA star LeBron James opening a school for at-risk youth in his hometown yet somehow still is receiving criticism.

But for all the temporary boycotts and backlash companies may receive for tailoring their messaging to a core value or belief, research suggests that consumers are actually drawn to brands that take stands. The Accenture study of 30,000 consumers found that “the majority of consumers prefer buying from brands that take a stand on issues they care about.”

As one of those who considers myself in the majority of consumers, I am surely rooting for a politicized Oreos commercial (or one like this 1995 Doritos commercial, starring two governors, Mario Cuomo or Ann Richards, who lost their reelection bids in the Republican rout during the 1994 midterms). I would love to rationalize buying a few dozen cartons of double-stuffed magic by saying I completely agree with the company’s values.

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Image credit: Keith Allison/Flickr

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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