NEW YORK — Messages about America, inclusiveness — and, yes, even “four years of awful hair” — kept bubbling up in Super Bowl 51 ads from Airbnb, the NFL and a line of personal care products. There was still plenty of escapism and light humor for those who weren’t into the politics.
As the New England Patriots edged out the Atlanta Falcons on the field in Houston, Airbnb touted inclusiveness with an ad showing faces of different ethnicities and the copy: “We all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”
Coca-Cola aired a previously run ad during the pregame show in which people sing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. Budweiser ran a 60-second spot chronicling co-founder Adolphus Busch’s migration from Germany to St. Louis in 1857, prompting some critics to start a boycott campaign on Twitter.
Even a hair care brand dipped into politics: The “It’s a 10” hair brand indirectly referenced President Donald Trump‘s famously unruly do in its Super Bowl spot.
It's tough to be a Super Bowl advertiser, period. But this year, a divisive political climate has roiled the nation since Trump took office in January, making it even tougher for advertisers.
Advertisers who paid $5 million for 30 seconds had to walk the line with ads that appealed to everyone and didn't offend. Some were more successful than others.
"Anxiety and politics just loom over this game, so anybody who gives us the blessed relief of entertaining with a real Super Bowl commercial wins," said Mark DiMassimo, CEO of the ad agency DiMassimo Goldstein.
Several ads aimed for just that. Tide, for instance, offered a humorous ad showing announcer Terry Bradshaw trying frantically to remedy a stain while his antics go "viral" online, with the help of New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski and actor Jeffrey Tambor.
Walking the Political Line
"Brands used to worry about whether their ad could be interpreted as right or wrong," said Kelly O'Keefe, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Now they have to worry about whether it will be interpreted as right or left."
Plenty of ads walked that line.
An NFL spot conveyed what all advertisers hope the Super Bowl becomes: a place where Americans can come together. "Inside these lines, we may have our differences, but recognize there's more that unites us," Forest Whitaker intoned in a voiceover as workers prepped a football field and gridiron scenes played.
"The Super Bowl is shaping up as a counterpoint to the divisiveness in the United States," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.
Airbnb's ad was one of the more overtly political, showing a variety of different faces with the tagline "We accept."
Some thought the ad was a hit. "Kudos to them for making a strong statement," said O'Keefe. But others, such as Villanova University marketing professor Charles Taylor, thought it didn't have a clear enough link to the brand and risked coming off as a "purely political statement."
Budweiser drew some criticism for the immigration theme of its ad, including calls on Twitter to boycott the brewer. That fostered debate — and banter — online, particularly over one hashtag that misspelled the company's name, #boycottbudwiser.
Other advertisers took the safest route possible by re-airing ads they've used before — an unusual, though not unprecedented, move. Coca-Cola, Google and Fiji water all aired rerun ads.
During the pre-game show, Coca-Cola ran "It's Beautiful," an ad featuring people around the country drinking the fizzy beverage and singing "America the Beautiful" in different languages.
A debut Super Bowl spot by the "It's a 10" hair care brand introduced its line of men's products by joking about Donald Trump's hair.
"America, we're in for four years of awful hair, so it's up to you to do your part by making up for it with great hair," went a voiceover state as black-and-white photos of people with a wide array of hairstyles flashed by. "Do your part. ... Let's make sure these next four years are 'It's a 10.'"
Snickers got press by airing a live ad In the third quarter. On a Wild West set, actor Adam Driver seemed not to know the ad was live — and then the set fell apart (on purpose). "You ruin live Super Bowl commercials when you're hungry," the ad's tagline read.
"It went by so fast, I almost missed it," DiMassimo said. "Not sure it was worth the trouble of doing it live."
Light Humor plus Celebs
Ads with light humor and stuffed with celebrities were popular. Honda's ad made a splash by animating the yearbook photos of nine celebrities ranging from Tina Fey to Viola Davis. They make fun of their photos — Jimmy Kimmel is dressed in a blue tux and holding a clarinet, for example — and talk about "The Power of Dreams," Honda's ad slogan.
"It was a really good message and it was entertaining," said Mirta Desir, a New Orleans native who works in education and was watching the game on Long Island.
The Tide ad with Terry Bradshaw was a hit with some viewers because of the way it tricked viewers into thinking it was part of the broadcast. "It made you think twice," said Pablo Rochat, watching in Atlanta. "There was funny dialogue and good storytelling."
T-Mobile's spots — which featured Justin Bieber and Rob Gronkowski dancing , Kristen Schaal in a "50 Shades of Grey" parody and Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg mixing talk about T-Mobile's unlimited data plan with innuendo about Snoop's marijuana habit, won raves from some — as did an ad from antioxidant drink maker Bai featuring Justin Timberlake and Christopher Walken.