EIGHTY FOUR, Pa. — All it took was a few minutes of lush, expensive, emotional advertising during the Super Bowl to pull this little town in the far southwestern corner of Pennsylvania into the center of the national debate on immigration.
Despite the rancor surrounding the issue and the sudden attention to their home town, many people here said Monday that they did not see the now-famous 84 Lumber ad as particularly political.
“It was sad,” said Jennie Ryan, 28, a nurse from nearby Washington, Pa., who stopped for lunch at the SpringHouse restaurant, a wood-paneled cafe that sits on a working dairy farm. “It showed the struggles that other people experience who are not from here.”
“It was a bit of a tear-jerker,” said George Gavlik, 50, a field technician in the oil and gas industry from Pittsburgh, eating a roast beef platter a couple of tables away. Asked if it seemed too political, Gavlik shrugged. “It’s their right,” he said.
Many people around the country viewed the Super Bowl ad — the tale of a mother and daughter traveling through Mexico on their way to the U.S. border — as unambiguously pro-immigration amid many far more traditional ads selling wares and brand names. And it came as something of a surprise, in part because it was promoting a little-known company that apparently was wading into the raging debate on television’s largest stage: 84 Lumber.
The home-building supply company that carries the town’s name is headquartered here, in a county that voted 61 percent for President Trump; it is run by a chief executive, Maggie Hardy Magerko, who has said she voted for him. But many took the message as criticizing Trump’s immigration platform.
In the original cut of the ad, the mother and daughter arrive at the U.S. border and confront an imposing wall, suggestive of the one the president has proposed in an effort to keep people from crossing into the United States illegally. It seems a heartbreaking end to a hopeful journey, until they discover a door that opens with a push onto a sunlit and welcoming America.
“The will to succeed is always welcome here,” reads a tagline.
Fox, the network that broadcast the Super Bowl, rejected 84 Lumber’s original version of the ad, refusing to let the company show the wall. “Of course we were disappointed,” said Amy Smiley, 84 Lumber’s director of marketing. “But ultimately, it’s their network and their decision.”
That rejection prompted the company to send viewers to the 84 Lumber website to see the full version. So many people wanted to view it that the company’s website crashed Sunday night.
“We knew it was a topic of conversation when we were conceptualizing last year,” said Steve Radick, vice president and director of public relations at Brunner, the agency that created the ad. “What we did not know was that it would be the topic of conversation.”
While some have criticized the ad as advocating illegal immigration, the overwhelming response was supportive. Radick said the commercial was not a direct response to the current debate about immigration and refugees that has been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign for the White House and the first days of his presidency. But, Radick said, the clear aim was to take a stand.
“When you are doing a big advertising campaign, especially Super Bowl advertising, you can’t just be talking about your company,” he said. “You have to make sure you’re reflecting what is going on in the world today, and immigration is a big part of that, especially in the housing industry.”
Like so many eruptions of controversy and anger that rage on social media and cable news, 84 Lumber’s ad registered as a minor, though widely seen, political oddity amid far more tangible problems and a new president working speedily — for better or for worse — to address them.
Residents here in Eighty Four, reluctant to think ill of the company known locally as a good employer and corporate citizen, filled in what felt to them like an ambiguous scene with their own views on immigration and the American Dream. For most of those interviewed Monday, that vision was of an America that is a magnet for the world — but with a front door that is not open to everyone.
Others said it was just exciting to see their tiny town’s company on the big stage.
A 51-year-old trucker who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of blowback for speaking his mind on political matters said the ad did not bother him despite the fact that he supports the idea of a big, strong wall on the southern border. He said he voted for Trump but voted for former president Barack Obama twice.
“They can put up an electric fence as far as I’m concerned,” the trucker said, noting that the ad struck him as simply another sign of our politically charged times. “The president is political with it, so what’s the problem?”
Trump has “done more in the first two weeks than Obama did in eight years,” he said, spearing a fork full of pasta salad.
Marcia Minor Opps, 53, an owner of SpringHouse who described her family as conservative, said she has warm feelings toward the Hardy family, which started 84 Lumber. It was founder John Hardy who years ago urged Opps’s mother to expand her milk and ice cream shop into the country restaurant it is today.
The family lives on the farm in Eighty Four just above the restaurant. The milk used for its famous chocolate milk comes from the family’s dairy cows.
Opps said she was perplexed when she saw the ad. “I didn’t know what it was trying to say because the people who work at 84 Lumber are all American,” she said. “Maybe they were just saying that people from all over the world want to get here but sometimes it’s hard.”
Her mother, Beverly Minor, 76, immediately grabbed her laptop when she saw the ad because she wanted to watch the rest, as the commercial suggested. She had heard about the ad and worried that it would elicit a negative response from her neighbors. But after she watched the end, she was reassured.
“The doors opened up like, ‘Ah, America,’ ” she said.
The message, to her, seemed to be that “it is a privilege to be here.” Adding her own view, she said: “It’s not something we owe everybody.”
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy organization, said the outpouring of support for the ad reflects the complex view Americans have about immigration. “The immigration issue is not as partisan as President Trump will have you believe,” Noorani said, “and I think this ad and this company is evidence of that.”
Noorani said the overtly emotional nature of the ad, and the response, goes to the heart of the debate: “The argument about immigration is about culture and values, not politics and policy.”
Others said that given the reliance on immigrants in many parts of the country, the ad was not a complete surprise.
“I’ve met a lot of CEOs who will admit privately that they need immigrants,” said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA. “But to do it like this, in the Super Bowl for everybody to see, was an act of courage.”
Samuel reported from Washington. Marissa Payne in Washington contributed to this report.