Why did a lumber company make the most emotionally gripping ad to air during Super Bowl 51?

What did you think of this Super Bowl ad?
What did you think of this Super Bowl ad?
Image: Screenshot/YouTube/84 Lumber
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Just before Lady Gaga took the stage during halftime at the Super Bowl, a company called 84 Lumber aired one of the most cinematically striking and emotionally gripping commercials of the game. The 90-second ad, which followed a mother and daughter’s journey from Mexico to the US, was beautiful and provocative, and got a lot of people talking.

Many of them wondered what on earth 84 Lumber was, and what the company was trying to say.

84 Lumber is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; it’s one of the largest privately held building-materials suppliers in the country. It’s a lower-end Home Depot, a few steps up from a lumberyard, that sells to contractors and consumers in roughly 30 states. It does about $2.5 billion in annual revenue, according to Forbes.

This was its first Super Bowl commercial. And, according to the New York Times (paywall), it was meant to recruit 20-somethings to work for the company, which like others in the construction business is experiencing a labor shortage.

But none of that came across in the ad, which in many respects was an abject failure. Ad-scoring firm Ace Metrix said the ad that aired on TV was one of the lowest-performing Super Bowl ads it has ever tested, in part because it was too serious for the Super Bowl. (This is Ace Metrix’s seventh year analyzing the Super Bowl.) And the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management’s annual ad review gave the ad a D. The Ad Review’s co-lead Tim Calkins called it “one of the strangest approaches I’ve see to a Super Bowl ad in a long time.”

The in-game ad, while gripping, didn’t really say anything. After showing the woman and her daughter’s harrowing journey over the course of the 90-second commercial, the ad referred people to the website journey84.com, where they were instructed to watch the conclusion of the family’s story. The digital portion clocked in at three minutes and 15 seconds, for a total time investment of five minutes and 45 seconds.

That’s a lot to ask of viewers during the Super Bowl, especially when Lady Gaga is about to perform.

Peter Daboll at Ace Metrix said many viewers walked away from the experience knowing little about the company. Only 50% of the 500 US consumers surveyed by Ace Metrix could identify the brand after they watched the TV ad, compared to 80% for all ads on average. He compared it to reading the newspaper and having to turn to another section to finish an article: “You get a tremendous amount of drop off.”

Also, the website crashed, which meant some people who wanted to watch the ad in its entirety could not. But as of 2:30pm eastern time today (Feb. 6), the video had more than 11 million total video views across YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, a company spokesperson says via email, adding that there were more than 40 million web requests to Journey84.com and 84lumber.com since the 90-second spot was released on Feb. 3.

But even after viewing the entire commercial, it is unclear what side of the immigration debate 84 Lumber is on, which polarized people on both sides of the proverbial fence.

The ad’s online conclusion portrays US construction crews building a wall. (The wall was supposed to be included in the TV spot, but Fox rejected it.) After an arduous journey, the mother and daughter arrive at the US-Mexico border, and find the wall. They’re crushed, and the daughter, who had been collecting scraps of fabric along the way, takes out the American flag she had made, which breaks her mother’s heart. But then, she discovers a door in the wall. They push it open, and the ad ends with, “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

To some, the ad came across as pro-immigration, which prompted support from some progressives and censure from some conservatives. But the company said that wasn’t the case, and took to social media to explain its vision.

84 Lumber’s owner and president, Maggie Hardy Magerko, who was behind the ad’s political theme, told the Times she voted for Trump and that the ad was meant to attract workers “who really believe in American dreams.” She also said in a statement that the focus of the ad was meant to be not the wall itself, but Trump’s “big beautiful door” to admit legal immigrants.

Other Super Bowl ads had political undertones

The best political ads in the Super Bowl, Calkins at Kellogg said, were those like Google Home’s and Audi’s that were ”welcoming and open without being polarizing. 84 Lumber didn’t take that approach,” he said. Other big brands like Budweiser and Airbnb also touched on the issue of immigration but did so in subtle or more inclusive ways. (See Quartz’s full list of ads from Super Bowl 51.)

Nonetheless, the commercial certainly got people talking about a company that most viewers probably hadn’t hear of before. On top of the 113 million people who watched the Super Bowl on TV or streamed it, roughly 4.7 million people watched the ad online, according to ad-tracking firm iSpot.tv. And 84% of the nearly 174,000 social interactions with the ad on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and iSpot were positive, iSpot.tv’s data showed.

“Clearly they were trying to get a lot of buzz,” said Daboll at Ace Metrix, and in that way the ad succeeded. “But is it really long-term business building?”

As a private company, 84 Lumber may not require the same return on its investment that a public company would, even for an insanely expensive ad like those in the Super Bowl. An average 30-second spot during Super Bowl 51 cost $5 million, which would price the TV portion of this spot at an incredible $15 million.

“If you’re a private company and you want to spend your money doing something like this that’s fine,” said Calkins. “I wonder if a public company would have run this ad.”

84 Lumber did not immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment.