Super Bowl commercials reinforce social norms against Dangerous Speech

Since U.S. government leaders are failing to denounce xenophobia – and even promoting it by depicting foreigners as dangerous threats – it’s a good thing that Budweiser and other companies stepped into the breach with Super Bowl ads – even if they did it just to sell more beer. Four companies – Budweiser, 84 Lumber, Coca-Cola, and Airbnb – used some of the most expensive minutes in advertising history to remind Americans that they are a nation of immigrants, probably helping to protect the country against a shift toward Dangerous Speech. More than 111 million Americans of nearly all political and cultural backgrounds watched those ads: the fifth biggest audience in all of U.S. television.

The ads were released amid alarming signs of violent hatred and fear of foreigners and minorities. In just one month after the November 8 election, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected more than 1,000 cases of bias- and hate-related harassment, from spray-painting swastikas to threats to lynch African-Americans.

When social norms – what people believe most other people believe it is socially acceptable to say or do – begin to shift in the direction of speech that endorses or even calls for violence (Dangerous Speech), influential leaders can forestall this by clearly and forcefully denouncing such messages – along with hatred and violence itself. Yet President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have only spoken against the hate incidents briefly, and only in response to questions from the media. Other prominent supporters of the President’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries have also declined to warn against fearing or hating Muslims – including about two million who are U.S. citizens – as former President George W Bush did on September 2003.

Four U.S. companies offered a counter narrative instead. None of their ads made any reference to policy, or xenophobia, nor did they tell viewers to like immigrants or minority groups. They still probably had that favorable effect, even among Americans who responded to the messages with anger and threats of boycott, since media narratives are famously effective at shifting attitudes – not only at selling Coke.

Past research has shown that stories or narratives (like most of the Super Bowl ads, such as the Budweiser one that described the immigrant life of one of the company’s German founders) are often more effective at changing social norms than public service announcements that attempt to tell people directly how to think or behave. In fact, when viewers feel they are being lectured, they often lose interest.

A large body of evidence suggests television shows can have a positive impact on attitudes and behavior concerning public health, education, and acceptance of minorities. Researchers accredit 5.7% of the overall decline in teen birth rates to the immediate influence of MTV’s reality television show “16 and Pregnant” which chronicles the lives of teen mothers. Soap operas in particular have had tremendous effect on its audience – as viewers become invested in their favorite characters, their own choices become influenced by their actions. The “entertainment-education” industry intentionally creates characters that exhibit certain behaviors to teach their viewership about important matters. A report on the effect of Brazilian telenovelas on fertility choices of their viewers found that women who regularly watched shows that feature small families were more likely to have fewer children as well, not because the shows told them to do so, but because they identified with, and imitated, the fictional characters they watched.

According to psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck’s study of the effect of a radio soap opera developed by Radio La Benevolencija to foster reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the show improved listeners’ perception of social norms. As result, some types of behavior between members of the two groups improved. This is not an anomaly. As Paluck and psychologist Margaret Tanker say in another article, “Instead of persuading individuals that recycling is important and hoping that they will then recycle, a norm change intervention may, for example, expose people to a popular peer who recycles, provide people with information that most of their peers recycle, or advertise new recycling guidelines from an important and trusted community institution.”

While edutainment is meant to change norms and is usually produced for that purpose, advertising sometimes takes up social issues for quite a different reason. Controversy can, in some cases, increase profit, when a polarizing message brings more exposure. Futhermore, as Matthew Yglesias of pointed out this week, advertisers have considerable incentive to appeal to younger consumers and their more inclusive political and social beliefs, although those beliefs are not shared by many other Americans.

Even when companies are motivated to run advertisements with a social message out of a desire to enhance their brand and not in an effort to shift norms, their messages can stand as a bulwark against Dangerous Speech. As Charly Jaffe says in a 2015 article published on Medium, “We consume massive amounts of advertising day in and day out, and when this content promotes an inclusive picture of society, marketing and advertising can work as an accelerator for social progress. Its value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.”