Pro-Israel Super Bowl & Hulu ads labeled ‘propaganda’ by some media and PR pros
Ads funded by the Israeli state and pro-Israel interest groups are popping up on Americans’ TV screens. But some PR, media and legal experts argue that these aren’t regular political ads.
Israel aired an ad in Super Bowl LVIII aimed at drumming up awareness for the fathers being held captive by Hamas / Israeli National Public Diplomacy Directorate
Super Bowl LVIII viewers saw more than the Kansas City Chiefs come out on top of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday evening. They also consumed a deluge of high-budget commercials – including one decrying antisemitism in the US and another aimed squarely at garnering US support for Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza.
But some PR, media and legal experts are likening the ads to propaganda rather than standard political advertising – and say they pose unique dangers to audiences.
A look at Super Bowl LVIII’s controversial pro-Israel ads
The Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, a nonprofit organization created by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, aired a 30-second spot during the game as part of its ongoing ‘Stand up to Jewish Hate’ campaign, which debuted in 2022.
The emotional 30-second ad features Clarence B. Jones, a lawyer who served as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped the activist craft his iconic 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. In the ad, Jones condemns social inactivism, saying, “The people who will change the nation are those who speak out, who refuse to be bystanders, who raise their voices against injustice.”
The ad, though positive in its message, drew quick backlash from some, who argue that the message appears to conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel’s actions in Palestine, which have resulted in more than 28,000 Palestinian deaths, according to recent data from the health ministry in Gaza.
“Let’s be clear. What Kraft is doing politically and what he’ll be using the Super Bowl as a platform to do is dangerous,“ said Dave Zirin, a sportswriter and political commentator, in his podcast Edge of Sports on Friday. “He appears to think that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic. For Kraft, it is Jews like myself, rabbis and Holocaust survivors calling for a ceasefire and a free Palestine that are part of the problem. And Kraft seems to think that opposition to Israel, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] agenda is antisemitism.“
But Super Bowl LVIII also included a more explicit plea for US support of Israel. Israel’s National Public Diplomacy Directorate, a government entity, ran a campaign throughout the weekend focused on raising awareness of the 136 Israeli hostages still being held captive by the militant group Hamas. The effort included a 30-second primetime spot during the Big Game.
In the ad, Super Bowl viewers saw a montage of heartwarming video clips dedicated to “all the dads” – including “the funny ones, the silly ones” and “the strong ones.” They were then met with the striking tagline: “To all the dads held in captivity by Hamas for over 120 days, we vow to bring you home.”
US audiences responded passionately to the ad, which was part of a multichannel campaign run throughout the weekend. While many took to social media Sunday to signal their support, others denounced the ad and drew attention to the fact that Israel was launching airstrikes in Rafah around the same time that the ad was airing.
I’m sorry, is Israel seriously airing a SOB STORY PROPAGANDA AD during the SUPER BOWL while SIMULTANEOUSLY BOMBING THE REFUGEES AT RAFAH???????
— Juno (@jsketch12) February 12, 2024
67 people have been confirmed dead from this latest assault, according to a Monday report from The New York Times.
Hulu’s ’visit Gaza’ ad debacle evidences more fundamental issues
The ‘Bring All Dads Back Home’ Super Bowl ad is the second major anti-Hamas campaign from the Israeli National Public Diplomacy Directorate to run on US TV screens in recent weeks. Last week, a dark, parody-style tourism ad encouraging consumers to “come visit beautiful Gaza” – and suggesting that without Hamas, Gaza would be a haven of fine dining, luxury hotels and beachfront entertainment, sparked outrage among consumers. It employs what some have speculated is AI-generated imagery of sparkling white sand beaches, children at play and cheerful diners. Running on Disney-owned streaming platform Hulu, the ad has generated widespread backlash online and sparked protests outside of Hulu’s offices in New York City. Some consumers are calling for a boycott of the streaming service.
Around 100 activists in New York are currently protesting @hulu decision to run a controversial, AI generated ad that claimed Gaza would be a resort destination if not for Hamas pic.twitter.com/ijxvhbIJq2 — Mack DeGeurin (@mackdegeurin) February 9, 2024
Hulu’s advertising policies, accessible on its website, says that the platform considers ads on politics and controversial public issues “on a case-by-case basis.” Hulu did not respond to The Drum’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, Google-owned YouTube initially ran the ad, but soon removed it from the platform for violating its content policies. It’s not the first time the platform has taken such action. In the spring of 2021, YouTube pulled Israel-backed ads that sought to justify a bombing of Gaza that resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people. At the time, a Google spokesperson told Vice: “We have a firm policy against ads that contain shocking content including graphic or violent imagery.”
Explosive social and political ads are nothing new. Networks and streaming platforms, says Dr. Robert Passikoff, founder and president of market research firm Brand Keys, are “in business to make money and run ads.” He points out that nearly $10bn was spent on presidential and congressional ads during the 2016 US election cycle.
Other industry leaders echo the notion that ad networks are unlikely to be too scrupulous about messaging when so much money is involved. “The ad is certainly controversial, but Hulu chose to accept the risk,” says Robert Brill, chief executive at digital ad agency Brill Media. “By running on Hulu it gets seen by a targeted audience with scale. More eyeballs and more view time leads to more impact.”
According to Brill, the ad likely reached the goal it set out to accomplish. “The most compelling messages come from great storytelling, which this ad accomplishes. In a world where science fiction stories share very realistic versions of our shared experiences in the real world, this ad hits the right beats, from optimism over what could have been to a reality gut punch of what is.”
He compares the ‘Come Visit Beautiful Gaza’ spot to a 2016 Trump campaign ad that painted a borderline dystopian picture of America’s future under Democratic control.
But other industry leaders argue that Israel’s latest ads are fundamentally different from – and more dangerous than – traditional political advertising.
“I want to caution against viewing this spot as directly analogous to a political ad,” says Andrew Graham, founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a New York-based PR firm. “This is propaganda. With a political ad, there'd be some candidate or campaign on the other side, ready to hit back or respond in some way. Nobody is lining up to air an ad spot that advances the interests of the actual victims of October 7, in the same way as nobody was lining up to run ads in support of the babies that the Trump administration was ripping from their parents and throwing into cages in 2018. This spot is far below just simple campaign mudslinging.”
It’s an opinion shared by other experts. Irina Tsukerman, a US national security lawyer and the president of Scarab Rising, a media and security consultancy, says that marketing efforts like this one risk harming consumers by blurring the lines between PR and propaganda.
As she puts it: “There is a general public expectation of some level of puffery in PR campaigns and advertising; the art of salesmanship is largely based in the skill of presenting even flawed scenarios as highly desirable – but without outright fabricating or otherwise crossing accepted red lines.” On the other hand, she says, “information warfare” involves “misdirection and [finds] some level of deception as acceptable in particular circumstances.”
Issues arise, she says, “when these two very different fields merge and become indistinguishable – in other words, when consumers are being manipulated in a way that is both dangerous and directly counter to reality, to serve a political agenda. This sort of information terrorism is not a desirable outcome and should be clearly condemned and fought by all relevant stakeholders.”
And it’s no coincidence, Graham says, that this campaign ran in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl LVIII. “[It’s] the one time every year where the ads themselves pull through to the organic news cycle. It seems to me that the spot is designed to inflame tension and to instigate media coverage ... It is about as low as it can possibly get.”
Despite his outrage, Graham acknowledges that the strategy of airing the ad during Super Bowl season has likely paid off for Israel. “As a propaganda technique, it’s showing in real time that the paid-to-earned sequence is effective.”
Suggested newsletters for you
Though the extent of the fallout is unclear at this stage, backlash from consumers on social media continues.
Hulu hasn’t seen the last of it, Tsukerman suggests. She believes that the streaming giant can expect to see financial repercussions in the near future.
“It was obvious that the ad would face all sorts of criticism from experts, political circles, stakeholders on both sides of the controversy and especially Hulu investors – who are likely to face potential liability and pressure over ever allowing something of that nature to air in the first place,” she says. “Moreover, offended customers of various backgrounds could in all likelihood unsubscribe from Hulu altogether and lead to significant financial losses. It is mind-boggling how such unwarranted risk was not discussed and assessed [at the corporate level], or whether the Hulu team ever bothered with a cost-benefit analysis.”
In Tsukerman’s estimation, Hulu has its PR work cut out for it: “It is obvious that Hulu is going to have to come up with a clear and convincing damage control strategy to mitigate the likely impact of this decision.”
Brill and Graham both tell The Drum that they won’t be surprised if Hulu blocks the ad from its platform soon.
Propagandistic ads likely to proliferate in 2024
While the Super Bowl is an especially powerful season for advertisers – with the Chiefs-49ers game attracting an estimated 120 million viewers on Sunday – the social and political ad battles are only likely to gain steam from here, experts say.
With wars raging in Gaza and Ukraine and key elections looming in the US, the UK and a swath of other countries, controversial advertising is expected to ramp up in 2024.
“This [Hulu] spot is a preview of what we can expect from domestic political actors, such as the Trump presidential campaign,” Graham says, “which also wants to use stochastic terrorism to dominate the news cycle and intimidate its audiences.”
Passikoff, for his part, says it’s all part of the game. “Expect a lot more [of these kinds of ads]. What are high-stakes elections if not controversial? Everybody has a point of view, and [many] are willing to pay to air it.”
For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily newsletter here.