Lumber company, others face backlash over Super Bowl ads

Building supplies company 84 Lumber tackled a heap of controversy over the weekend with its carefully crafted – yet inconclusive – 90-second Super Bowl ad featuring a Mexican mother and daughter embarking on a difficult journey north that left the viewer wondering where they ended up.

At the end of the ponderous tale, script appears on the screen: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

That wasn’t the full story. The Super Bowl ad asked viewers to visit the 84 Lumber website if they wanted the rest of the story. The website version included a five-minute “director’s cut” version that concludes with the pair entering the United States through a door in a towering border wall, a direct take on one of the most combustible topics in the country today. Viewers logged on to see, and 84 Lumber’s site was overwhelmed by the traffic.

That and other commercials spurred a backlash on social media and elsewhere. Some viewers accused 84 Lumber of promoting illegal immigration. Others supported the Pennsylvania company’s values that promote striving and success.

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The ads cames just a week after President Donald Trump raised a national firestorm with his order to temporarily ban refugees and immigrants from seven mostly Muslim-dominated countries as part of his national security policy.

84 Lumber wasn’t alone in the Super Bowl ad pile on. Many other big brands, from beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev to Audi, Airbnb and Kia autos used their Super Bowl time – at $5 million per 30 seconds — to break through. The challenge is to get viewers, whether they are chatting at a party or standing among a scrum at a bar, to pause and take notice – and maybe talk about it later.

Allen Adamson, founder of BrandSimple Consulting, said most Super Bowl advertisers who waded into political waters were distracting viewers from their mission of selling their company products.

Adamson called 84 Lumber’s commercial “a miss,” because like several other advertisers, it was trying to attach itself to a social issue instead of pushing its product. He calls the tactic “borrowed interest,” and said it usually backfires.

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“Borrowed interest is glomming on to subject matter not related to their brand or business to try to grab attention,” Adamson said. “You end up with ads people remember, but it doesn’t drive their business. People may remember 84 Lumber, but they won’t run out and patronize the product. They also botched the execution when their server crashed. They left lots of money on the table.”

A spokesman for 84 Lumber said reaction has split down the middle, with about 50 percent critical of the ad and the other half liking it.

“About what we expected,” said Steve Radick of Brunner, the New York ad agency that created the spot for the company. “It was worth it because we brought a tone of awareness to a very important issue — the immigration debate.”

“Anytime you talk about advertising, you try to tap into pop culture,” Radick said, explaining why 84 Lumber ventured into such a combustible topic as immigration. “To ignore politics and say we can’t talk about anything controversial because we can’t take the risk of offending anyone, we then end up with a really bland message.”

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A portion of 84 Lumber’s clientele is selling building supplies to mom-and-pop and midsize local contractors. Many small home repair business and builders and laborers are first generation immigrants to the United States. The commercial probably spoke loudly to them.

“The themes of hard work, dedication and sacrifice found throughout the film are the same ideals valued in 84 Lumber employees,” the company said in a news release Sunday. “84 Lumber is a 60-year-old, family-owned American company that doesn’t just have jobs, but careers – with training and opportunities for advancement.”

84 Lumber founded itself sandwiched between both sides of a fierce debate, even though owner and president Maggie Hardy Magerko voted for Donald Trump, according to Adweek.

If the company wanted attention, it certainly got it. Radick said the 84 Lumber website traffic ballooned to 300,000 views within minutes of the commercial airing just as the first half of the Super Bowl between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots ended. There were 6 million attempts in the first hour, which slowed access to the video.

Radick said in the first 12 hours after the spot aired, the original and director’s cut combined had 3.4 million views on YouTube. He said the company ranked 20th on YouTube’s site as of this morning. He said the reason the company referred viewers to the conclusion of the commercial was because Fox did not allow 84 Lumber to include a border wall in the broadcast portion of the ad. Broadcaster Fox and the National Football League have rights to approve the final ads that are aired during the game.

That editorial constraint led to an awkward commercial where the abridged story left the message unclear. And before the Super Bowl, Forbes noted that “during consumer tests the ad reportedly performed poorly – largely because it didn’t reach a conclusion.”

Karen Zuckerman, president of the HZDG advertising agency, said “strategically, they took a risk to raise awareness around current and controversial issues.”

Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at branding firm Landor, said companies feel compelled to wade into controversial topics because their customers, or potential customers, want to know more about the values of the companies they patronize, whether it’s where it sources materials or positions on equal pay or immigration. They also try to reach them with feel good topics around the human condition.

“It’s about navigating this new reality,” Ordahl said. “Companies think they need to take a positions and tap into emotions. It’s just very tricky to do it well.”

Ordahl said it’s a delicate balance to make your message interesting without turning people off. He singled out automakers Kia and Honda for lighthearted pieces that dealt with weighty topics like the environment and capturing the human spirit. Ordahl said 84 Lumber landed on the gloomier side of the ledger.

“84 is trying to tap into these social issues,” Ordahl said. “I’m not beating them up. Everyone is trying to navigate this. People like content but don’t want a preachy, school marm approach.”

Ordahl said the Audi advertisement using a father/daughter parable for gender pay equality was also a bit on the heavy side. “Women I was with were put off by it,” he said. “You have to take a position to be relevant, and do it without being off-putting.”

Audi of America issued this statement:

“Audi was proud to share a commitment to equal pay for equal work on a national stage. ‘Daughter’ sparked a conversation and we are encouraged by the public’s engagement.”

Chris Malone of Fidelum Partners said companies gingerly dancing around controversial topics that were once considered mainstream can get drawn into the political fray.

“While these more coy advertisers can plausibly deny that their ads were not intended to make a political statement, there is no doubt that consumers will perceive them as politically relevant in the current context,” Malone said in a email. “In particular, the decision to advertise Mexican Avocados was especially bold. It will be interesting to see how consumers and the media respond in the days ahead.”