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NFL Super Bowl

Super Bowl in the culture wars: celebrity boycotts, wary advertisers – and who will play at half-time?

  • NFL has tried to keep the biggest night for sports and advertising in the US above politics
  • It’s treatment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a sticking point
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 8:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 8:47pm

The Super Bowl is traditionally the biggest night for sport, entertainment and advertising in the US, but in the wake of intense politicisation of the NFL, Super Bowl LIII is shaping up to be a fierce battle, not just of sporting prowess, but in the embittered culture wars.

The event is still three months away, but organisers are having trouble securing big-name performers, advertisers are unsure whether to lean into the politics now surrounding the NFL or eschew the event entirely, and politicians are seizing upon the occasion for partisan squabbling.

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“The Super Bowl is really the last water cooler event we have,” said Mark Wenneker, chief creative officer US of MullenLowe, the firm behind the memorable E-Trade spot during last year’s Super Bowl.

“There aren’t a lot of moments we have like that any more. The Oscars is close but it’s not the same.”

Figuring out how to remind people of that shared experience will be a challenge for advertising firms such as Wenneker’s. Some may avoid the potential political landmine of aligning their brands with the NFL too closely altogether.

The latest salvo arrived last week when Amy Schumer announced she would refuse to appear in a Super Bowl ad in protest against the league’s treatment of the controversial former quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The one-time star player, who is currently suing the league for collusion in denying him a spot on a team, has not played in a game since 2016 when he began his protest about racial inequality in America.

“I wonder why more white players aren’t kneeling,” Schumer wrote on Instagram. “Once you witness the truly deep inequality and endless racism people of colour face in our country, not to mention the police brutality and murders. Why not kneel next to your brothers? Otherwise how are you not complicit?”

Schumer, who appeared in a 2016 Bud Light Super Bowl commercial, said she hoped others would follow the example of Rihanna, who reportedly declined an invitation to perform at the half-time show.

There aren’t a lot of moments we have like that any more. The Oscars is close but it’s not the same
Mark Wenneker, chief creative officer US of MullenLowe on the influence of the Super Bowl

The Los Angeles pop rock band Maroon 5 has reportedly been slated to fill the spot, although the league has yet to announce its plans publicly. Their appearance will not be devoid of controversy either, however, considering their most recent hit, Girls Like You, features Cardi B, who would be a natural fit for a guest spot at the Super Bowl were she not such a vocal supporter of Kaepernick.

Asked last year whether she would ever take the stage at the Super Bowl the artist said she would refuse until “they hire Colin Kaepernick back”. At the MTV Video Music Awards last year she came out strongly in support of the former quarterback. “Colin Kaepernick, as long as you kneel with us, we’re gonna be standing for you, baby.”

Adding further complications to the performance is the displeasure many music fans, particularly in Atlanta where the game will be held, have expressed over the way the city’s rich musical legacy is being ignored.

“The game will be played in Atlanta, the blackest big city in America, a driving force behind modern pop music and home of legends such as OutKast, Usher, Ludacris, T.I. and current supergroup Migos,” Jesse Washington of the Undefeated sports and pop culture website wrote this week.

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“Jermaine Dupri alone has produced enough hits to fill three half-times. Native son Lil Jon’s Turn Down For What is a sports arena classic with more than 800 million YouTube views,” Ludacris himself posted around the time the Maroon 5 rumours surfaced.

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has continued to keep his displeasure with the league’s handling of the protest issue front and centre, claiming, incorrectly, that TV ratings were down this year. Ratings had in fact risen four per cent over last year through the first six weeks of the season.

In another tweet in September, Trump turned his ire toward Nike, which recently partnered with Kaepernick on an ad campaign.

“Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” he wrote, also incorrectly. Nike sales reportedly surged after the campaign ran.

Nike did not respond to a request about their intentions of airing Kaepernick spots during the Super Bowl, but the potential for generating further buzz around the brand on advertising’s biggest stage may prove irresistible.

Whether other brands will follow suit by attempting to leverage the political division in the country over this issue and so many others remains to be seen. Simply advertising with the NFL may be seen by some as support for one side or another experts say.

“All endorsement is support for the NFL and the cultural role the Super Bowl plays in society,” Jonathan Mildenhall of the consultancy TwentyFirstCenturyBrand told The Wall Street Journal recently in a piece titled Just advertising during the Super Bowl could appear political for brands. “It used to be proudly middle America. Now it has a divided narrative.”

“I think we are in a civil war in the culture right now. We’re red versus blue,” said Wenneker, although he doesn’t expect many brands will lean into the controversy this year. “I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of preachy ads from brands that tap into what’s going on out there in the world. I think what we may see is stuff that makes people want to laugh again.”

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“I don’t see this being the time for that statement,” Wenneker said. “I may be wrong. I feel like people are so drenched in politics 24 hours a day and football just needs to be football.”