It was with anticipation that I tuned in, along with 111.3 million other people, on Sunday night, to watch the Super Bowl. I don’t fully understand American football to be honest, but I’ve always enjoyed a good Super Bowl party.
This game, however, wasn’t just your average Super Bowl. Not just because of the Patriots’ comeback from being 25 points down in the third quarter to finally – and unexpectedly - beating the Atlanta Falcons by 34 – 28 in an historic overtime play, but due to the striking politicization of the game itself, from the commercials to the reactions of fans and players alike.
Brands took the current political climate in hand, placing politics at the heart of their commercials, with themes such as integration, inclusion, diversity and immigration – all, of course, major issues which have dominated and divided America since Donald Trump was inaugurated nearly three weeks ago – tackled openly (and often beautifully) from companies like Anheuser-Busch, Air BnB and Coca-Cola.
Instead of conforming to conventional advertising wisdom to stay out of politics - especially at an event that is as widely watched and beloved as the Super Bowl - brands went to some lengths to clarify their values and to ensure that viewers were left in little doubt as to which side of the political aisle they are on.
No doubt there is an economic reason for this commercialized political activism, but it is always risky for any brand to delve into sensitive social and political topics. With 24% of the Super Bowl broadcast itself being dedicated to commercials, however, it was clearly not lost on advertisers that they could use their spots to say a lot more than just “buy our beer”. Influencing through soft power and culture will become even more prevalent over the course of this political term.
Then there were the fans. It is one thing for fans to be divided because they support opposing teams, but, again, things are different right now. Now, even your average fan is unable to ignore what’s going on politically.
With the Patriot’s MVP Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft being friends and supporters of Trump, supporting the Patriots took on a different meaning for some on Sunday; there were more than a few conflicted Patriots fans showing up in my social media timeline who felt that their support was betraying their political ideals, making them Trump supporters by association. One Boston based entrepreneur (a Patriot’s fan), for example, even offered to donate “$100 for every retweet up to $50,000 "as penance for Patriots politics" to the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization currently fighting Trump’s immigration ban in the courts.
Other people saw the Patriot’s unexpected and last minute win as a metaphor for Trump’s electoral victory over Hillary Clinton in the election. In other words, with all that’s going on – and uncertainty about what’s to come – people of all stripes are increasingly seeing what might usually be considered mundane through energized, political eyes.
Although Trump campaigned along the lines of being less political than the average politician, he has actually injected politics into the American everyday in a way that I certainly have not witnessed over the previous 8 years. Those who before may have said: “let sports be sports” are now asking “what are that football player’s/musicians/advertisers/magazine’s beliefs, and do they align with mine?” before making decisions.
On one hand, this is demonstrative of the overreach of the kind of politics that’s currently coming out of the White House. On the plus side, however, it is great to see so many more people participating in and engaging in politics and thinking about the impact of politics on everyday lives and actions. Right now, more than ever, America needs it.