Super Bowl ads intercepted by political causes

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Stacey Abrams, whose nonprofit was among groups paying for Super Bowl ads (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)


Many hoped that political ads would stay in the sidelines for Super Bowl. Despite 
calls for brands to leave politics out of the Super Bowl, it is hard to escape from big-spending special interests and the new reality of a neverending election season.

Days before Stacey Abrams — who has been floated as a challenger to Georgia Senator David Perdue (R-Ga.) —  is slated to deliver the Democrats’ official response to President Trump’s State of the Union, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit she runs paid to air an ad during the Super Bowl. Airing in the Macon, Albany, Columbus and Savannah markets, the ad was estimated to cost the group a hefty $100,000.

Incorporation records show Fair Fight Action was created as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit by a different name before it rebranded in an amended filing from December 2018. As part of that amendment, Fair Fight Action crossed out a key paragraph swearing off political activity that was present in the group’s original articles of incorporation. By removing the paragraph at issue, the updated incorporation records free the group to “directly or indirectly participate or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”

That month, Fair Fight Action’s sister political action committee (PAC) — Fair Fight — was registered with the Georgia Government and Transparency Campaign Finance Commission. In January 2019, the PAC also registered with the Federal Election Commission.

Fair Fight Action’s 501(c)(4) nonprofit arm previously came under scrutiny as a “dark money” group since its representatives have rejected disclosure of donors and due to substantial overlap in the political consultants, fundraisers, contractors and staff serving in similar capacities for Abrams’ nonprofit organizations, political committees and campaigns.

In conjunction with the TV spot, Fair Fight Action launched a social media campaign building on the momentum of the Super Bowl ad, spending more than $500 and up to $2,500 on ads touting her Super Bowl appearance alone.

Fair Fight Action spent than $23,460 on 46 ad buys from December 2018 through the day before the Super Bowl then more than quadrupled the number of ad buys on the day of the Super Bowl to 180 ad buys, according to the Facebook Ad Archive.

Beer wars

One topic, in particular, made waves in a breadth of Super Bowl ads on the Internet and on TV: Beer.

The Distilled Spirits Council, the leading beer, wine & liquor lobbying spender, seized the opportunity to run digital ads fighting blue laws in Texas. Using a page called Modernize Texas Spirits, ads costing from $1,300 to $4,600 and reaching up to 700,000 viewers proclaimed “It’s Super Bowl Sunday! But you can’t purchase your favorite distilled spirits for the big party because of TX’s outdated blue laws. Tell Governor Abbott and state legislators it’s time to finally give TX consumers the choice + convenience of 7-day spirits sales!”

Other trade groups also targeted beer-lovers watching the game. The Association of American Railroads paid for digital ads on Facebook advertising that the “ industry also moves the beer you’re getting for your Super Bowl party—4 million tons worth annually.”

But some beer ads were more controversial.

Even before kick-off, Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser ads set to air during the Super Bowl had already attracted backlash over an ad promoting wind power.

The ad featuring Budweiser’s famed Clydesdale horses pulling a stagecoach past a Western landscape with wind turbines in the backdrop set to the soundtrack of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” quickly drew the ire of the nonprofit Committee for Constructive Tomorrow — which does not disclose its donors but has been tied to key players in the fossil fuel industry through corporate disclosures and trade groups like the Kentucky Coal Association — but gained support of a number of wind advocacy organizations.

During the game, things only heated up for Anheuser-Busch as the corn lobby laid into its series of ads in which a medieval crew delivers a cask of corn syrup to Miller Lite and Coors Light to emphasize that Bud Light is “brewed with no corn syrup.”

Shortly after the ad aired, the National Corn Growers Association tweeted at the beer brand, “America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you. Our office is right down the road! We would love to discuss with you the many benefits of corn!”

Anheuser-Busch said it “fully supports” corn growers and plans to continue investing in the industry but the backlash continued even after the game when the Iowa Corn Growers Association Chair Mark Recker issued a statement concluding, “Please leave us out of the beer wars.”

Digital ad blitz

Costing much less than televised Super Bowl ads, many political advertisers took their messages to the Internet instead of or in addition to the airwaves.

Multiple Senate candidates dipped into their campaign coffers to fund digital ads in attempts to win over voters and constituents with the common bond of sports.

The campaign of Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) led the fray, paying for digital ads on Facebook calling for the NFL to be held accountable over a referee whose “botched call took away our Saints’ shot at a Super Bowl Championship,” after the New Orleans Saints suffered a hotly contested no pass interference call that some say gave the Los Angeles Rams the game and sent them to the Super Bowl.

Other congressional campaigns used the lead-up to the Super Bowl as a talking point during the government shutdown. Lucy McBath for Congress, the campaign of Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), ran a series of digital ads about the problem of having unpaid TSA agents “with the Super Bowl looming in a few weeks” and directing viewers to sign a petition hosted by the website of a super PAC named PACtion, then soliciting donations to “support Lucy’s re-election campaign.”

A variety of state and local candidates simply paid to promote digital ads with photos of their gameday grub or lavishing praise on the best and brightest of their constituents playing a part in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the National Chicken Council spent more than a grand on Facebook ads promoting a petition to make the day after the Super Bowl a federal holiday called “National Chicken Appreciation Day.”

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