Day 6

Thanks to the pandemic, Super Bowl ads will look a little different this year

Thanks to a slowing economy, sensitivity around COVID-19 and the ability to reach consumers in targeted ways through social media and podcasting, big name brands are spending less on — or cutting entirely — their advertising during Sunday’s big game.

Companies spending less or not running Super Bowl ads at all

In 2020, nearly 100 million people in the United States tuned into the Super Bowl. While the game is always the draw, the big-budget ads keep viewers sticking around. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Super Bowl viewers used to being wowed by big-budget commercials will experience the breaks between plays a little differently when watching this year.

Thanks to a slowing economy, sensitivity around COVID-19 and the ability to reach consumers in targeted ways through social media and podcasting, big name brands are spending less on — or cutting entirely — their advertising during Sunday's big game.

The famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses won't be making an appearance — instead, the iconic beer brand, which has been part of the game for over four decades, will be spending those ad dollars elsewhere on COVID-19 vaccine awareness.

"It is a step in the right direction to say, 'Listen, everybody already knows what Budweiser is. Maybe I can do something that has a lasting impact, that's more citizenship related,'" said Christa Carone, president of CSM Sport and Entertainment.

Super Bowl stalwarts like Coca Cola, Hyundai and Ford have said they won't be spending the $5.5 million US for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial slot. 

One reason for the change is that demand for advertising is down, says University of Toronto marketing professor David Soberman.

"Many of the sectors that typically advertise in the Super Bowl are things that people have been consuming just as much during the pandemic as before," he told Day 6, pointing to food and drink companies, alongside products like tax software.

But for companies that sell products like automobiles, travel and hotel stays — things many are avoiding thanks to stay-at-home orders and COVID-19 restrictions — Soberman says interest just isn't there.

"Even as of early January, there was still space available for the Super Bowl game.… Typically it's been sold out by [U.S.] Thanksgiving, which is more than a month earlier."

Tricky advertising climate

Last year, nearly 100 million Americans tuned into the Super Bowl. 

As much as the game itself, the costly ads are typically fodder for memes and social media mentions. Companies spend months developing their spots in hopes that the game's massive audience will catch on and buy into what they're selling.

While that can be a financial gamble for companies, Carone says that in the face of a global pandemic, they have other concerns to consider.

While Pepsi will not run ads for its namesake pop this Sunday, the Super Bowl half-time show, which was headlined by Shakira and Jennifer Lopez in 2020, is still sponsored by the company. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

"For some of the more traditional players … there is a sensitivity around, 'Can I strike the right tone with my messaging this year?'" she said.

"There's a lot happening around [the] pandemic and economic uncertainty and job loss and life loss and civil unrest, and for these big brand companies, they typically have a master message that they're communicating — [that's] not easy to do in light of all of the different issues that we're facing right now."

Political polarization south of the border, where the big-budget ads are typically seen, also makes the marketing more tricky, says Soberman.

"In other words, you're going to kind of opt for vanilla when it comes to politics now," he said.

In the past, companies have used their spots to deliver messages on social issues, like gender equality and racism. But even well-intentioned ads have a chance of backfiring if they miss the mark, or are seen as trying to exploit a social movement.

And if consumers view an ad as inauthentic, those companies risk trending online for all the wrong reasons.

"Unless you have a true, authentic alignment with the issues that we as a society are facing right now, I very much hope that the brands don't try to go there because they will get called out on social media," said Carone.

She points to an ad by job posting website Indeed, who will make their Super Bowl debut this year, as an example of when companies get it right. "Massive unemployment that we're all facing right now can be a difficult topic to address, but Indeed can address it from a tone of positivity and being a helpful aide to bring more employment to more people," she said.

'Still a lot of big brand play'

Though Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Budweiser, won't be advertising its flagship brew on Sunday, viewers will see ads for their other brands, including Bud Light.

And while Pepsi won't air an ad during the game, their logo will be all over the half-time show with headliner The Weeknd.

"When you get under the hood, there's still a lot of big brand play in the game this year," Carone said pointing to General Motors, Amazon and M&Ms.

Meanwhile, smaller brands like freelancer marketplace Fiverr, will make their debut this year.

"This is an environment where that business is thriving. Why? Because you can't really go and knock on doors and try to find jobs in the old fashioned way because of the pandemic," said Soberman.

Stock trading service Robinhood will also debut an ad. The company shot to prominence last month when retail stock traders used it to buy stock in GameStop, driving up the stock's price in a short squeeze. It came under fire when traders were restricted from buying shares in several companies — including GameStop — through its app.

"The fact that they're continuing with their spot and they have a message around democratizing trading is interesting," said Carone.

Whether or not those ads will stand out, however, remains to be seen.

"It's a gamble."


Written by Jason Vermes. Segment produced by Laurie Allan.

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