The Political Super Bowl - Sport and Politics Can No Longer Be Separated

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.

The Super Bowl has always been about much more than sport. It’s a pop culture extravaganza, where the halftime show, obscure gambling possibilities and even the adverts get as much attention as the game itself. It has also become a time capsule, a reflection of the cultural context of its time. In 2016 Beyonce’s cameo performance reflected the discontent of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and before that the post 9/11 context made the Super Bowl the high water mark of American Patriotism, best evidenced by U2’s emotional halftime performance just months after the attacks. Super Bowl 51 was no different. This may have been one of the greatest games in the history of the sport, but it will likely end up being remembered for something else. After probably the most contentious first two weeks of any Presidency the Super Bowl was politicised beyond all recognition, with the ground breaking political events of the last 12 months dominating the game across every touch point.

It started with the key figures in the game itself. Both New England quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are high profile Donald Trump fans, with Brady famously being spotted with a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap in his locker, and Belichick having sent Trump a letter of support during his Presidential campaign. With the Patriots being the type of team everyone loves to hate, it became an easy point of criticism for Trump’s detractors. In some ways though, politics didn’t reach the players as much as it could have. There was no big statement from a player or coach coming out for or against Trump and his policies in the lead up to the game and since it finished, such was the brilliance of the Patriots performance the politics of their star men hasn’t been a major storyline.

Politics framed a lot of the conversation around the game more clearly. During the BBC broadcast, at a point when the Falcons were well ahead and looked to be closing out victory, host Mark Chapman read out a remarkably prescient tweet. In essence, the point was that we shouldn’t go to bed early, as Brexit and Trump’s election had proved that middle of the night surprises should now be predictable. It’s a sentiment that has been repeated over and over again on social media, especially when the Patriots did pull off their fourth quarter surprise. For anyone hoping conversation around a sporting event could prove an escape for politics, they were bitterly disappointed.

However it was within the Super Bowl ads where politics most clearly made its way in to the game and where the debate about whether sport is the place for politics really starts. In amongst the usual mix of inspiring Americana, bizarre humour and awkward celebrity endorsements, several brands chose the huge platform of a Super Bowl ad spot to make a statement about president Trump, and his signature immigration policy. There are three notable examples where brands varying levels of subtlety choose to take aim at immigration policy.

Budweiser chose to tell a fictionalized version of their origin story, in the form of a cinematic style spot about the life of founder Adolphus Busch.

With the German founder facing abuse the second he gets off the boat - “You’re not wanted here” – it was a clear reference to Donald Trump’s immigration policy, leading his supporters to demand that we #BoycottBudweiser and the company to claim any link was a coincidence. It would seem an incredible coincidence for Budweiser not to have the political context in mind in creating the ad, making their response a bit of a shame as the huge global corporation clearly felt it had to caveat its statement in the face of mounting criticism.

The same can’t be said for Airbnb. There was no hiding that their ad was a direct response to Trump and his Muslim ban.

The space was only bought in the week of the Super Bowl and was a clear response to Trumpism, with faces of varying sexes, races and cultures accompanied with a message of ‘we all belong’. It was in lock step with the brand’s purposes of ‘belong anywhere’ and was a direct challenge to the migrant ban and the ideology behind it.

Perhaps the most explicit though was a spot from little known company 84 Lumber – which didn’t just take on an ideology, it took on a policy. Their spot, which shows a Hispanic mother and daughter attempting to cross into America, only to be met with a giant wall, a wall they are able to get through thanks to a conveniently placed door, was deemed by Fox too controversial to air in full.

The version that went out during the game ended before they reached the wall, with the full version available only through the brand’s website. It is an incredibly powerful statement of the American Dream, and a rejection of the controversial wall that has been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s rise to prominence.

All three of these spots have been predictably controversial, but there is no denying they are incredibly powerful.  The question becomes, is a sporting event the place to make these statements? Don’t we deserve 3 hours to enjoy the entertainment where we don’t have to think about politics or difficult moral issues? The answer, for me at least, is no.

The reason that the Super bowl was chosen as a vehicle for this message, is that the spectacle of the sport has created a moment of huge international attention. The popularity of sport creates a platform, and makes it inevitable that brands that get involved with sport use that platform to spread their message. The money required for sport as we know it to exist means that it will never be truly pure in any case. So for a brand to choose to use that platform not to convince us to buy beer, or choose to rent a flat rather than get a hotel room, but to make a statement about the way they see the world, shouldn’t be criticised but applauded. Scott Stratten, President of Unmarketing said about Budweiser in the aftermath of the controversy around their spot "Budweiser is not a polarizing brand in theory," adding "they are not a brand that takes a side or a stand for things". It’s a shame that Budweiser shied away from explicitly calling their ad a statement against Trump (even though it clearly was), because personally, I want a brand that stands for things. Even if you don’t agree with the positions these brands take, they proved themselves willing to have one. We choose brands if we believe in what they believe in and their purpose in the world. Only by opening themselves up for the type of criticism that these brands did, do we see what makes them who they are. They may get backlash now, but in the future, being seen as brands willing to stand up and make a statement about right and wrong will help them.

In the UK, sport and politics have managed to stay much more separate. We haven’t seen UK sports used as vehicles to make a statement on Brexit, Trump or any major political issues in any way as explicit as this Super Bowl was. But it is, for me, a matter of time. The way we consume culture now isn’t split into the same lines it once was. We don’t just read the sports pages anymore, we consume sport and politics and culture all at once via an ‘all you can eat’ digital landscape, and have opinions about everything. The thing with the extreme politics of the last 12 months is that it has made radicals of us all. Political debate has changed from being about one side of the aisle vs the other; it has become about morals, about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s much harder to separate a moral argument from sport than it is to separate one about which political party is better than the other. It may be nice to think we can switch off from it for 3 hours during a sport event, but you can’t. As more and more people have strong views about these issues, we will expect those who have access to the platform of sport to show us that they have an opinion as well. Because when we feel so passionately, we want brands that feel the same, one way or another. In today’s age of personal sharing and passionate argument, there is nothing so insincere as pretending not to have an opinion.

Hiding behind a mantra of ‘sport is about sport’ isn’t good enough. The Super Bowl may have been the first time when sport became sub-ordinate to political conversation, but it won’t be the last. The Super Bowl may always have been a reflection of the culture, but it won’t be long before all sport does the same.

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search