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When does a Super Bowl commercial become a political act?

Big game ads have addressed politics and social issues, but Amy Schumer’s boycott adds a new element to just showing up.

When does a Super Bowl commercial become a political act?

Taking a stand on a social or political issue isn’t anything new in advertising, and the biggest American ad show of them all—the Superbowl—is no exception. In 2017, we saw Audi take on gender pay inequality, Airbnb celebrate cultural diversity, and 84 Lumber condemn the border wall. Last week, Amy Schumer–who starred in a 2016 Bud Light Super Bowl campaign with Seth Rogen–announced on Instagram that she wouldn’t appear in any Super Bowl ads in response to how the NFL has handled the players’ kneeling protests.

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“I personally told my reps I wouldn’t do a Super Bowl commercial this year,” she wrote. “I know it must sound like a privilege ass sacrifice but it’s all I got. Hitting the NFL with the advertisers is the only way to really hurt them.”

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Friday thought. I wonder why more white players aren’t kneeling. Once you witness the truly deep inequality and endless racism people of color 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? I think it would be cool if @maroon5 backed out of super bowl like @badgalriri Did. I personally told my reps I wouldn’t do a Super Bowl commercial this year. I know it must sound like a privilege ass sacrifice but it’s all i got. Hitting the nfl with the advertisers is the only way to really hurt them. I know opposing the nfl is like opposing the nra. Very tough, but don’t you want to be proud of how you’re living? Stand up for your brothers and sisters of color. And the hottest thing a guy can do is get down on one knee. Not to propose but to reject the treatment of his teammates by this country. Anyone who says its disrespectful to our military please read up on the fact that a lot of veterans are proud of what @kaepernick7 is doing and fully support him. What are your thoughts?

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Schumer’s decision follows reports that Rihanna turned down an offer to perform during the Super Bowl halftime show (a slot since filled by Maroon 5) as a show of support for Colin Kaepernick. Are brands next? Former Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, now cofounder and chief executive of the consultancy TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, told the Wall Street Journal that “all endorsement is support for the NFL and the cultural role the Super Bowl plays in society. It used to be proudly middle America. Now it has a divided narrative.”

In the same article, University of Pennsylvania political science prof Diana Mutz asked, “Will anyone remember who did not appear in Super Bowl ads? Or does the attention and influence necessarily fall to those who do? My guess is the latter.”

If last year is any indication, brands will shy away from overt political statements and treat the game as just that: a game. A time for lighthearted fun. And those who do say something know it’s possible to do so without sitting out the event altogether. Nike is an official supplier of the NFL, and yet there’s no confusion as to where the brand stands on the Colin Kaepernick issue.

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Beyoncé used her now legendary halftime performance of “Formation” in 2016 to pay tribute to Black Lives Matter. So while appearing on the Super Bowl stage may imply endorsement of the NFL, perhaps more important is how that time is used.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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