Sunday’s night’s Super Bowl ads featured enough spots hitting on themes about immigration, diversity, and inclusiveness that even Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer decided to get in the game, arguing on Medium that corporate America had just delivered a sharp rebuke to Donald Trump.
Some Trump supporters, conversely, are calling for a boycott of Budweiser, based on the company’s decision to air an ad celebrating the beer’s roots in the immigrant experience.
But while it’s natural for professional politicians and political activists to see deep ideological meaning in everything, the real truth about the Super Bowl ads is probably simpler and more boring.
The target demographic of consumer-focused advertising skews younger than the national average, while the electorate skews older. Consequently, as long as a political coalition grounded in senior citizens holds office in Washington, it will make sense for many consumer brands to strike themes that run broadly contrary to the main currents of Trumpism.
Advertisers need to target young people
The key thing about brand loyalty is that it starts young. In the trade press, the only question is about exactly how young. A conventional approach might have thought of kids between the ages of 5 and 14 as a key target for consumer packaged goods, while some newer thinking holds that companies should really aim younger than that. According to AdWeek, McDonalds has a 2-7 segment that they target.
But beyond those extreme cases, the main groups that advertisers worry about are millennials and the younger “Generation Z.” That’s in part because young people spend a larger share of their budget on branded products (as opposed to boring things like mortgages and child care) but it’s primarily because once people find a brand they like they are unlikely to switch.
Older people have found brands that they like, and less inclined to try new things. What’s more, if you’re already a fan of a given brand’s products, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you like their new marketing campaigns.
Meanwhile, the oldest consumers not only tend to have a whole set of brands they are already committed to, they are also unlikely to be interested in exploring new product categories. Even new categories that eventually become ubiquitous such as televisions or smartphones initially face reluctance from older consumers. Companies with new products normally focus on winning young adults first and expand to older customers later.
On the other hand, seniors are disproportionately likely to vote. Older people move around less, have more knowledge of the community they live in, and have deeper ties to local institutions. They have more time on their hands to engage with the political system. And they reliably turn out to vote at a higher rate than younger people.
This means that while senior citizens are largely irrelevant to mass-market consumer brand advertising, they are crucial to politics. Teenagers, conversely, are overwhelmingly ineligible to vote and yet are absolutely central to consumer advertising.
These things have both been true for a long time. What’s made them salient recently is that it’s only over the past few election cycles that age has been a major driver of partisan politics.
Expect anti-Trump themes in many ad campaigns
As recently as 2000, Al Gore held only an extremely narrow 48-46 advantage over George W. Bush among voters under the age of 30. At the same time, Gore narrowly won the senior citizen vote by a margin of 50-47. Age was simply not a significant predictor of voting behavior, especially when you consider that the youngest cohort was also considerably less white than the oldest cohort.
That changed in 2004 when John Kerry blew Bush out among under-30 voters 54-45 even while losing the popular vote by a hefty margin. By 2016, the overall electorate was narrowly divided again just like in 2000, but Donald Trump came to dominate senior citizens by a 52-45 margin. Conversely, Trump got just 39 percent support among voters under the age of 45. And the younger you go, the less popular Trump becomes — he was the choice of just 34 percent of voters under the age of 25.
The implications of this for the long-term of American politics are a lot less clear than the implications for short-term consumer marketing. Trump has, with laser precision, identified a set of narratives and themes around national decline and an exclusionary conception of American identity that the target audience for most marketing despises. That means many people looking to sell beer, soda, laundry detergent, cars, and other branded consumer goods are going to decide it’s smart to embrace the exact opposite ideas.