The Super Bowl pitted President Donald Trump and Democrat Mike Bloomberg against one another: each candidate with big budgets to spend on political advertising, each taking his candidacy to the Big Game. Both politicians ultimately used that platform last night to focus on messaging centered on a narrative, rather than a biographical look at who they are as candidates, using African American women to tell their stories.
“Narratives are powerful; they break through clutter,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re a good decision to make in the context of the Super Bowl: memorable and provocative, but doesn’t get you in polarizing politics.”
Trump’s 30-second ad in the first quarter put a spotlight on his decision, after lobbying from Kim Kardashian West, to grant clemency to Alice Johnson in 2018. Bloomberg’s 60-second ad, which aired after halftime, told the story of George Kemp Jr., whose mother appeared in the commercial to endorse Bloomberg and his fight to advocate for gun reform.
The politicians’ Super Bowl ads represented the first time a candidate has taken out an ad in the game, defined as commercials that air after kickoff and before the play clock runs out. This presidential election cycle, with billionaires running and a president who has fundraised astronomical amounts, led to an environment in which they can afford to take out such ads. It’s an opportunity that no political action committee has taken advantage of before.
“It’s expensive. When you’re dealing with limited resources… I’d be out of a job,” said Brian Lemek, executive director of BradyPAC, a lobby group advocating for gun control. “It’s a really hard platform to crack.” Lemek, whose group has not endorsed a candidate, commended Bloomberg and the NFL on their ads addressing the argument for tighter gun controls.
“Urban areas, wealthy, poor, white, black, whatever—everyone is watching football,” he said. “The great thing about that is those same demographics are all also folks that could be affected by gun violence. It reaches across America; the issue does not discriminate.”
Bloomberg approached advertising in the Super Bowl aggressively, heading into the game with a significant advertising buy around keywords that users would be searching for. For example, if someone searched for “donald trump super bowl ad,” they’d be served with Bloomberg’s Super Bowl spot. That strategy extended to an advertisement the Bloomberg campaign put out the night of the game as well, to address a 30-second ad the Trump campaign initially claimed would appear in the game.
That ad ultimately aired after the game ended, but the Bloomberg campaign had already challenged the ad’s message, which showed Trump touting what he considered his successes as president, for its own purposes.
While most of the brand advertising during the Super Bowl continued to avoid politics, the narrative takes from the 2020 hopefuls were the right approaches to take for both candidates: a sitting president with a massive budget to spend on ads, and a billionaire looking to make himself more known outside of the New York market where he once served as mayor.
“From a civility standpoint, I’m relieved to see there’s substantive issues rather than slinging mud in February,” said David A. Schweidel, marketing professor at Emory University.