With Super Bowl-size audience, tonight’s presidential debate will tempt brands to weigh in

As the first presidential debate airs tonight, with an expected audience of up to 100 million, many brands almost can’t seem to resist getting in on the conversation, despite plenty of executives both in and outside the industry asking if it’s wise.

For example, every time Donald Trump mentions building a wall tonight, a beer brand is going to be tweeting about it. Tecate and agency Saatchi New York are airing a Trump-mocking ad called #TecateBeerWall. Unlike the barrier proposed by the Republican nominee, Tecate’s wall will be be 3 feet tall and used as a meeting point for people from both sides of the border to have a drink on. It will air Monday night on Fox, Univision and Telemundo.

On Twitter, the beer brand has bought promoted tweets and will spend the debate tweeting about the beer wall every time any of the candidates mentions a wall. “For us, this effort is the Super Bowl of a marketing plan for 2016,” said Felix Palau, who heads marketing at the brand. “The objective is to create a conversation.” 

But a polarizing political race is not exactly hospitable territory for selling stuff. The Super Bowl not only draws a huge audience, but the game itself is a nonstop celebration of commercialism. The fate of the country’s political leadership is, well, different.

“It would really feel inappropriate. Nobody is listening to brands tonight,” said Nadina Guglielmetti, who heads social at agency Huge.

One of the most unusual elections in decades has come at a time when the stakes for real-time marketing has never been higher. As the Skittles kerfuffle last week showed, there is something to be gained by not trying to muscle in on a conversation that is about more than candy or cars or beer.

As a result some brands are opting for discretion over marketing, at least on social. “A lot of brands don’t feel it’s appropriate to play in this space,” said Christine Prins, CMO at Saatchi New York, even though Tecate, her client, is not one of them.

Huge will be going to great lengths to ensure that their clients remain as far from the conversation as possible. Almost every single staffer at Huge’s New York office will be in front of some sort of screen watching for any of its clients being mentioned — either by the candidates, by the media or by regular people. It’s not a war room. Each staffer will be following what is known internally at Huge as a “protocol.”

“For today, the protocol is active. The team is listening and watching and depending on what we hear, three people are going to be contacted, and it could be anyone from a senior client, or legal, or a social media manager,” said Guglielmetti. That protocol will determine any necessary responses in case one of Huge’s clients has a Skittles moment: For Guglielmetti, the only time she would advise clients to respond is if something is risks going viral on social media or gets on the news. Otherwise, it’s silence. 

But this year’s debates promise gigantic numbers. While all four debates are commercial-free, brands can buy airtime before and after. The debates are expected to bring 100 million viewers, according to a recent poll by Morning Consult. The 2016 Super Bowl, confined to just one network, was watched by 114.4 million viewers. (Nielsen said the last time a debate went over 80 million viewers was in 1980, when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan took the stage.)

For brands, those figures might be too big to ignore, reflecting a tension between people who think brands need to be quiet and those who can’t resist.

Postmates is running a delivery scheme with theSkimm called “We’re making delivery great again” that offers new customers free delivery and information on candidates when you sign up.

Audi has a new ad called “Duel” about a woman and a man — both hotel valets — duking it out to get behind the wheel of the Audi RS 7. The spot will air during all three presidential debates, but not during the vice-presidential debate, on all channels that are broadcasting them. The ad features lots of little winks and nods to both parties, and the company plans to engage its entire social team online to respond to people who want to talk about those. “Whether it’s this or the Super Bowl, you expect bold creative,” said Audi of America vp of marketing Loren Angelo.

The brand has been involved in political tentpole events before like the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, said Angelo. “We want to not only talk about cars but insert our brand into the cultural conversation.”

Asked if there was a conversation internally about whether brands should get involved in places like this, Angelo said that the company is a challenger brand both in its marketing and in its engineering. “We want to not just advertise, but also make a statement,” he said. “What’s important to remember is the the RS 7 is a metaphor for America.”

Homepage image courtesy Audi

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