The difference between “pandering” and “serving” in the Super Bowl ads

It is the morning after a glorious Super Bowl — an epic win, a historic comeback, and a thrilling halftime performance by Lady Gaga. And yet I have a simmering anger about one aspect of the game that I couldn’t quite identify until I read a quote in the newspaper today.

Like most marketers, I adore the Super Bowl commercials. I relish the creativity and the big-name talent, and I have fun discerning the trends and themes that emerge, a reflection of our world to some degree.

Over the last few years the commercials have become markedly less fun and more cause-oriented. For the most part, the Super Bowl commercials stayed away from political statements this year, except two, and the difference between these ads was the source of my disappointment.

The first commercial was one that Coca-Cola replayed from two years ago featuring people of many ethnicities singing “America the Beautiful” in their native languages. When it first ran, I immediately loved it, although the company received some backlash over it later. My initial reaction when they ran this commercial a second time was “Why would they run an old commercial? Is this simply a slap at the immigration issue in America?” It seemed uncharacteristic. But more on that in a minute.

Here is the Coke commercial:

The second commercial that hit the immigration theme was Budweiser.

The ad — which shows founder Adolphus Busch’s struggle as an immigrant in the U.S., where he is told he is “not wanted here” — debuted shortly after President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries indefinitely. Some saw the ad as an attack on Trump’s policies, and the hashtag #BoycottBudweiser went viral. Here is the Budweiser ad:

I loved the Coke ad and hated the Bud ad although both hit the same theme. What was the difference?

Here is a quote about current market trends in the New York Times today from ad executive Rob Schwartz: “If there’s anything that’s screaming out there, it’s diversity.”

Were these companies reinforcing a brand image or callously pandering to the latest trend?

Coca-Cola’s ad first ran two years ago. It was bold and edgy. They took the unprecedented step of running the ad a second time to remind people of what they stood for. Arguably, diversity has been a theme for Coke since their epic “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad from 1971:

Coke has represented inclusion and diversity as part of its brand for nearly 50 years.

My view of the Bud ad, and perhaps the reason for the public backlash, is because it pandered to a hot trend, instead of maintaining a consistent brand theme. In past Super Bowl ads, Bud has featured sappy ads about puppies, horses, and the occasional super model. And today, with an ad featuring a knowing glance of brotherhood between the founder and a black man on a riverboat (top illustration), they stand for diversity. Hmmm.

Recall, that this is a company who has made become famous for culturally insensitive marketing.

In full disclosure, part of my emotion comes many years of first-hand experience with both of these companies. I worked closely with both Coke and A-B in a marketing role for more than a decade. Telling a long-term story rooted in solid brand-building is typical of the Coke culture. Figuring out how to sell more beer this month is typical of the A-B culture, which was part of the source of my reaction. I’ve seen A-B in this “pander” mode before.

Although both ads had a similar themes, Coke reinforced a well-established brand image while Budweiser tapped into the recent emotion around immigration to move beer. By the way, Coors has been running ads about its immigrant founder for years. To me, this is consistent brand-building instead of waving in the wind.

Any way, part of our human diversity is the beauty of of differing views and I would love to hear about yours in the comment section.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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  • Mark — the Budweiser ad didn’t seem like pandering to me. While it may not fit neatly into the beer’s long-term theme as well as say, Coca-Cola’s did, I thought it was more about hope, perseverance, and entrepreneurship. I’ve also read (and believe) that this ad was actually planned and shot well before the president issued his executive order on immigration.

    I think the far more pandering one was also the more powerful — the lumber 84 commercial.

    First, it was _clearly_ conceived and shot as a direct reaction to President Trump’s plan to “build a wall.”

    Second, I didn’t like that the ad itself showed only half the story, directing viewers to a website for the rest.

    And third, it resonated with me, moved me. So it was jarring at the end to discover the sponsor was…a lumber company. ?? I would have been much more amenable to the ad if it had been either cause-oriented (i.e., sponsored by the ACLU or the like) or coming from an industry less controversial than lumber.

  • Agree about that 84 ad, although I read that they had toned it down a bit.

    I appreciate the dissenting view, but the fact that this ad created a firestorm of backlash for “America’s beer” may indicate that many found the spot somewhere between odd and offensive. The YouTube views are evenly split between likes and dislikes last I looked.

    I think the ad is great storytelling — agree with you there — but I can’t help but think the timing was created due to polling, not strategy. Even if this was shot a long time in advance, they had to know this was going to upset a swath of the population, probably their core drinkers. Why in the world would you do that, no matter how good the story is? Very risky politicizing a consumer brand.

    Thanks again for the very great comment sir. Great discussion.

  • There was a thin line of using the commercials to push a product or to actually send a message.

  • Call me crazy but did anyone’s brain, tastebuds and lips really feel like they must now drink an A-B product after watching that? Somebody at A-B takes themselves waaaay too seriously. It’s beer folks. Beer. The erudite won’t be switching from their grossly overpriced “craft” brew and Joe the Plumber, well, he’s probably wondering WTH was that ad about, History Channel?

  • Michael Miller

    I think whether or not this ad is pandering depends on what they are saying in other channels, which I’m unaware of. Without getting too political, I think it’s fair to say that the US is going through some upheaval and trying times. In times like these – no matter which side you are on – it’s vital to the health of the nation for people and organizations to step forward and fight for what they believe in. To do otherwise, would be hoping someone else fights your battle for you.

    If A-B truly believes in what that commercial says, as a company and a culture, and they are saying the same thing in other circles, then good for them for standing up for those beliefs. If they are silent elsewhere, and not backing these statements up with other actions, then I agree with you that this is pandering and that’s shameful. Also pretty damn risky. Which is another reason I wonder if it’s not legit. Why risk a Tweet from the President if you don’t believe in what you’re saying?

  • aminator

    Perhaps your insider status gives you an edge, but I didn’t see the commercial as pandering. In fact, it seems that A-B took a chance in offending their audience (which it appears that they did), rather than simply moving beer. They must have assumed there would be some backlash. I actually thought it was a good message. Using cute puppies, flags and horses to move beer seems more like pandering to me.

  • aminator

    Opinions aside, the ad referred people to watch the ending online because Fox wouldn’t let them air it on television.

  • Good morning Mark!

    I am jubilant that my New England Patriots made a miraculous comeback of comebacks to win the Super Bowl yesterday.

    However, I, like you, was,, am, still have a simmering anger about one
    aspect of the game that I identified right from the time it aired of the
    SBLI commercials.

    Yes, you got it right. Coke recycled and pitched a diversity message in
    the heated political climate of late, but it is Coke’s differentiating
    strategy to include diversity as a global selling point.

    Conversely, Budweiser really pissed me off with their lame attempt to
    push their political message. I can see why many saw Bud’s ad as an
    attack on Trump’s policies, and it is no wonder why many watchers like
    me thought of establishing the hashtag #BoycottBudweiser,
    which I know must have gone viral.

    I grew-up in New England, but lived in Chicago for 16 years. I was a
    loyal Miller Lite and Miller High Life beer drinker for many years.
    Living in Chicago is an interesting place. Especially, when you have
    friends in the bar and restaurant business. Chicago,
    IL is the most competitive market for salespeople from Miller Brewing
    Company in Milwaukee, WI, and the Anheuser Busch Company in St. Louis,
    MO marketing their beer. You would not believe some deals. There are
    exclusive deals for bar owners. You either have
    Budweiser product or you have Miller products, but not both. I remember
    a time when I was in a Chicago bar when Augie Busch III came in with
    his entourage. He offered to buy a round for the bar. I was drinking
    Miller Lite at the time. I told Augie I wanted
    another Miller Lite. Well, that ensued into quite the discussion! If
    someone offers to buy you a drink, they should at least have the
    courtesy to let you order what you drink. Right?

    Anyway, for the past year plus, after reading the Wheat Belly Diet, I
    had switched and drink Bud Light as my house beer because it was listed
    as a low gluten beer, along with Amstel Light.

    Consequently, I will now embrace the hashtag #BoycottBudweiser movement,
    and go back to drinking Miller products or I will switch to having
    Coors Light as my house beer in the fridge.

    Have a great week.



  • thanks for the historical perspective and anecdote David!

  • Thanks for your dissenting view. If in fact, they assumed, or knew, there could be some backlash, this was one of the dumbest marketing decisions of all time. I can’t imagine any brand manager approving a potential boycott.

  • These are great points Michael and I thank you for your dissenting view. There is certainly a role for companies in national and global change. In fact, I happen to believe that corporate America can drive social change faster, and more effectively than the government. But the first role of a company is to create shareholder value. If you don’t create shareholder value, you’re not going to exist. So selling a product profitably is a prerequisite to changing the world.

    In my view, Budweiser foolishly jeopardized shareholder value and created a controversial backlash when they didn’t have to. The ad seemed to be a one-off that was not part of a longer story or a part of their brand identity and promise.

    Since the ad came out, the company has backpedaled, explaining that it was all a coincidence, that the ad had been planned a year ago. Nevertheless, it was poor judgment. Lots of ads have been pulled from the air if they suddenly become politically insenstive so I don’t buy that as an excuse. It was a feeble attempt at relevance through newsjacking and I thought it was a failure. Thanks again for the very thought-provoking comment

  • Yeah good point. The whole thing was just off brand.

  • Thanks for your comment.

  • Can I just say I love it when you start a comment with Hmmmm!!! I know it is going to be good! I think you make some very good points here and I do think their “founder story” could be part of the Americana aspect of the brand.

    But even if you give them the benefit of the doubt, the end result was a backlash and a boycott. These people are the best marketers in the world, or are supposed to be. Spawning a protest is bad business. Many thanks for the superb comment, a blog post in its own right, FWIW : )

  • Michael Miller

    Impressed as always that you take the time to respond to all of your comments.

  • Muhammad Saad Khan

    Great piece @businessesgrow:disqus. Have you seen the Molson Canadian Ads? I am using their case study in my management trainee class at my company. They actually understood the Canadian culture built content around it. Also, they knew that Ice Hockey is loved by the people so they created stories around it as well.

    I am talking about these two specific ads that I lay down infront of my students as a case study;

    Molson Canadian Beer Fridge:

    Molson Canadian Scan Your Passport:


  • I regard a comment as an incredible gift to me of a person’s time and attention. I need to acknowledge and respect that always.

  • Awesome. Thanks for sharing that and good luck with your class!

  • Augustine25

    I think, to a lot of people, diversity has become a dog whistle for anti-white hate. Given Democrat hostility to the white working class, I think brands are making a mistake by signing on with causes which appear to reinforce the idea that the white working class is hostile to others or benefiting from “white privilege.” The Democrats have probably lost the white working class for a generation. I would not be surprised to see the same voters who elected Trump to dispose of the brands that set up whites for attack and vilification.

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