It’s rare to crave a commercial break. But if 95 uninterrupted minutes of the first, bruising 2016 presidential debate had at least some viewers (not to mention two candidates and a moderator) yearning for the relief of a word from a sponsor or two, it wouldn’t surprise me.
The rules set by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates specify that (unlike primary face-offs), these events unfold “without commercial breaks.” And generally speaking, lots of advertisers and brands prefer to steer clear of politics anyway. But last night’s event was so widely hyped — predictions of 100 million viewers were made — that some marketers simply couldn’t resist the spectacle. Networks were thus reportedly asking $200,000 or more for 30-second slots immediately before or after the debate.
And notably, a few ad-makers decided to play politics — or, at least, play with politics.
Two such spots stand out. The bolder one came from, of all things, Tecate. It starts with a bird’s-eye view of the U.S./Mexican border, with an announcer gravely informing us: “The time has come … for a wall. A tremendous wall. The best wall.” Gradually we zoom in on two groups of guys, regarding each other from across the border. Next we see the wall.
Then, abruptly, somebody whaps a can of Tecate onto the thing — and the “tremendous wall” turns out to be about the height of a cooler, and thus a perfect accessory for sharing some brews, or cerveza, or whatever you want to call cans of Tecate and Tecate Light. It is, in sum, a wall that “brings us together,” the announcer concludes. “You’re welcome, America.”
Tecate reps insist the brand (which traces its roots to the town of Tecate, Mexico, near where the ad was filmed, and is today owned Heineken), is “totally neutral” on political matters. But it’s pretty hard to imagine how this goes down as anything but a poke at Donald Trump’s signature issue, converting the Republican candidate’s imagined mega-barrier into a cross-cultural party spot. This is reportedly Tecate’s first ad explicitly aiming beyond its core Hispanic market to more general audience, so while I think it’s clever and charming, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of taste it leaves in the mouths of the “Build That Wall” crowd.
The other notable ad is more of a high-production-value blockbuster, from Audi. Clocking in at a minute-and-a-half, it opens with a close-up of “Vote” and “2016” buttons, on a debris-covered floor. Then the spot, titled “Duel,” rapidly accelerates into a full-on brawl between a man and a woman — which, when I saw it during a post-debate segment on CBS, seemed like déjà vu.
Oddly, the action unspools backwards. But this is one intense fight, reminiscent of “War of the Roses,” and ranging from a ballroom where some sort of political celebration was planned through various parts of a hotel. At one point the woman’s head smashes through a wall into a room where a startled couple was watching a debate; at another moment someone drops a smartphone with a “Confidential” message visible on its screen; and in the hotel kitchen, a guy walks by with a taco bowl much like the one Trump famously tweeted.
The fight itself is a humdinger worthy of an action film. In the end, we learn that the two are valets, and the whole thing started over who would get to park a new Audi.
Fun. But that payoff is really a head fake. The ad closes with text: “Beautiful things are worth fighting for. Choose the next driver wisely.” Those slightly cryptic lines, paired with the in-reverse narrative and all the Easter egg political references (which of course encourage repeat views), are what the ad is really about. Beyond that, the specifics are rather cunningly up to you. Should we behold today’s political brawls and wonder what it was that started this mess? Or which punch or kick or hair pull escalated it beyond control? Is it even possible to choose “wisely” at this point? Or maybe those interpretations are too cynical. Let’s just hope the “beautiful thing” we’re fighting for is something more significant than a new Audi — and that when this duel concludes, it’s possible to clean up the wreckage.