The Surprising Political Spending By Sponsors Of Some Super Bowl Ads

Whether intentionally or not, Super Bowl LI commercials tackled some tough political issues.
 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad about a mother and daughter trying to cross the border made waves.
84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad about a mother and daughter trying to cross the border made waves.

Super Bowl LI left a few lasting impressions: That one-for-the-history-books come-from-behind victory by the New England Patriots; the Lady Gaga halftime show that was rich with hits and practically politics-free; and the ads, always the ads — many of which were not so politics-free.

Just over two weeks into Donald Trump‘s presidency, companies had to make the risky decision whether to enter the fray and weigh in on controversial issues. Even the less freighted ads became contentious, though: Avocados From Mexico’s lighthearted spot, for example, was linked to the notion of paying for a southern border wall with a 20 percent import tax on Mexican goods (an idea that was floated, and then not floated, by the Trump administration).

Other companies knew they would be making waves. 84 Lumber, a building materials supply company headquartered in Eighty Four, PA, had the most direct message. Its 90-second ad, aired for an estimated $15 million just before halftime, featured a Spanish-speaking mother and daughter’s long, difficult journey to the U.S. The commercial ends with the pair still in transit and directs viewers to “see the conclusion at” In the extended cut, the tearful mother and daughter arrive at a giant wall blocking them from crossing the border, but soon notice a door built of lumber that allows them passage. The final message: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

Fox rejected the full ad, an obvious dig at Trump’s wall, after deeming it too controversial for TV. In response, 84 Lumber made a 5:45 version of the spot available during halftime on its website, which crashed almost immediately due to the flood of traffic. 84 Lumber has said it hopes the ad will help the company reach a broader audience.

What may be surprising, though, is that 84 Lumber is anything but a bastion of liberalism.

Individuals affiliated with the company made close to $60,000 in political contributions in the 2016 cycle; with the exception of $25, all the money that was given to candidates and party committees went to Republicans. Most was given by company founder Joseph Hardy III, including $33,400 that he gave to the National Republican Congressional Committee. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) received $5,400 from Hardy, while Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), and Ryan’s leadership PAC Prosperity Action each received $5,000 from Murphy.

Hardy’s daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, who is CEO of the company, told the New York Times she voted for Trump. She said she was “flabbergasted” that Fox rejected the original 84 Lumber ad.

According to The New York Times, a 30-second slot during Super Bowl LI cost brands an average of $5 million, up from last year’s $4.8 million. That’s about $166,666 per second. Then there was the money the sponsors spent advertising their ads. Still, for most companies, spending big bucks on game-day commercials pays off, since the Super Bowl is the most watched event on TV every year.

In another example of what might be seen as dissonance between an ad and the political profile of its sponsor, Anheuser-Busch took flak for its commercial that chronicled the journey of its immigrant founder Adolphus Busch, who came to the United States from Germany in the 1800s. Trump supporters started tweeting #boycottbudwiser (with far fewer correctly-spelled #boycottbudweiser tweets), which was trending Monday on Twitter, in response. The company has denied that the ad was in any way a comment on Trump’s travel ban, saying it was instead supposed to highlight its founder’s pursuit of the American dream.

The $204.6 billion beermaker has strong financial ties to the Republican party: 55 percent of the nearly $2 million the company’s PAC and employees gave to federal candidates and party committees favored the GOP. The NRCC received $301,000, the Republican National Committee gained just over $221,900 and the National Republican Senatorial Committee took in $197,000. 

Airbnb, one of the most vocal companies in opposition to Trump’s travel ban, also anted up for a Super Bowl spot, taking a clear stand on immigration. The 30-second commercial aired before the second quarter, declaring “the world is more beautiful the more you accept.” No surprise here: Days after Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim nations, the company began providing free and subsidized temporary housing for those affected by the new restrictions. Airbnb’s political spending seems to reinforce its stance. In 2016, almost every penny of the more than $450,000 it gave to candidates and political parties at the federal level went to Democrats. The Democratic National Committee came in as the top recipient with $69,500 and the party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, gained almost $52,700.

Whether intentionally or not, Super Bowl LI commercials tackled some tough political issues, and raised the prospect of increased opposition to Trump’s immigration policies on the corporate front going forward.