06 February 2017

Rethinking 84 Lumber's Super Bowl ad

If you've been alive over the last few days, you've undoubtedly heard about 84 Lumber's Super Bowl ad. The original ad was nixed by Fox for being too controversial. A lot of debate has surrounded around the politicization of Super Bowl ads; and this ad in particular has been discussed as anti-Trump. The conventional wisdom is that conservatives and Trump supporters would think poorly of this ad; and progressives and liberals would see the ad positively in opposition to the President's immigration policies (and specifically the wall).

 But let's dig a little deeper.

First, if you haven't seen the full ad, you owe it to yourself to watch it now:

The first part of ad, without the ending, seemed to glorify illegal immigration as a noble, if difficult journey. Absent from the ad are the reality of such journeys, including violence, drug trafficking, and human trafficking.

Yet as I watched the full ad, I have to admit: it was clever (undoubtedly, this was the ad-maker's intent in not explicitly showing what the workers were building). The workers were not building the wall, but a large door in the wall. And as 84 Lumber has said itself, the ad was about a symbolic journey. Interesting.

More (and this is where the ad really helps to come into focus): Maggie Hardy Magerko, 84 Lumber’s president and owner, voted for Trump; and the imagery of the door in the wall came explicitly from Trump himself:

In this light, it's difficult to see 84 Lumber's ad as anti-Trump. If anything, it's entirely consistent with Trump's campaign rhetoric, right down to a visual representation of the door in the wall as symbolic of legal, not illegal immigration. According to Steve Radick (a former colleague of mine at Booz Allen), vice president and director of public relations at Brunner, the agency that created the ad and provides support to 84 Lumber. “It was meant to be topical – it was not meant to take any political side.”

To be clear, what I am looking at here are the politics of the ad. Whether it is a good ad or not is an entirely different question. Sometimes ads are too clever for their own good. I think that is where this one may go.

Perhaps it's too late to prevent people from digging in to the convention wisdom about how one should see this ad. But if it's not, maybe this ad is instructive to us about meeting our rivals somewhere in the middle and having a real conversation, instead of sniping for political gain.
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