Super Bowl ads: What will commercials look like in a pandemic?

Jay Busbee
·10-min read

There’s a reason more than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl each year, and it’s not just to see the finest football teams in two conferences challenge one another for a year’s worth of bragging rights. The Super Bowl’s an event, one of our last true shared events, where what happens around and outside the field is every bit as important as what happens between the lines.

But after a year unlike any in living memory, a year we’ve spent locked down and up in arms, how will America’s best-known cultural celebration reflect the moment? (Well, by showcasing Tom Brady, of course, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.) How will the Super Bowl ads reflect — or sidestep — the national mood?

We spoke to experts across a range of advertising-related disciplines, and the consensus was: There is no consensus. Advertisers are trying to figure this out on the fly just like the rest of us. Here’s a look at what’s at stake in the Super Bowl of advertising, also known as the Super Bowl.

To advertise vs. not to advertise: Several big brands, including Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Hyundai, created headlines in the last few weeks by proudly declaring they would not be advertising in this year’s Big Game. Much like someone theatrically changing their relationship status and profile pic on Facebook right after getting dumped, the goal here was to get notice … and it worked.

“They decided to take the angle of philanthropy, of reinvesting the money [that would have been spent on ads] into something beneficial to society,” says Terence Scroope, head of insights at the ad platform Unruly. “There’s always a danger when brands try to play in that space. Consumers have a degree of cynicism when brands jump into larger issues. But the way Budweiser did it was really smart. They didn’t make it about themselves, they made it about helping other people.”

In other words, it was a smart move for Budweiser not to show, say, the Clydesdales delivering a load of vaccines. That wouldn’t have gone over well.

TV vs. digital: The pandemic will mean a drastic reduction in Super Bowl parties, which in turn will mean a whole lot more people watching the game in smaller groups … and thus engaging in a second-screen experience on their phones. That’s the kind of potential interaction that advertisers crave, and it’s why you see so many Super Bowl ads released long before kickoff.

“It’s less important that someone sees your ad during the game than that your ad gets 20 million online views,” says David Steinberg, CEO of the marketing/tech company Zeta Global. “Advertisers are more interested in digital views, and it doesn’t matter so much if the game gets 96 million viewers, or 110 million.”

The pandemic is likely to accelerate a trend we’ve seen in the last few years: The TV ad is only the hook, not the full campaign itself. Digital also offers viewers a chance to participate in the ad campaign, not just passively absorb it.

Mountain Dew, for instance, is running a game-within-the-game; viewers who can count the correct number of bottles in the ad featuring John Cena can win a million dollars. And while you’re advancing the video frame-by-frame and counting, you’re getting the Mountain Dew logo burned onto your cerebral cortex. Just like the advertisers intended.

Big brands vs. upstarts: There are two main types of Super Bowl advertisers: the newcomers who are trying to make a splash in a crowded market, and the big dogs who are trying to hold onto their position atop the hierarchy. Among the upstarts, think of the Apple “1984” ad, still one of the most famous ads in history, or the e*trade dancing monkey (“Well, we just wasted $2,000,000”) from 2000. You know the established brands: Budweiser, GM, Coke and others that rely on a huge lift from the Super Bowl to keep themselves at the forefront of consumers’ consciousness.

“Some of the giants are sitting out because of the higher risk this year,” says Dr. Ray Taylor, a professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business. “You have to strike the right chord with the viewers. These brands have such high brand equity, there’s a huge downside risk if they do something that’s offensive or doesn’t work.”

“We’re seeing a lot of new entries, businesses taking the big plunge,” Scroope says. “It’s a smart move. These disruptor brands are offering new services that are reflective of the changes we’ve had to make [because of COVID].” Delivery, e-commerce and re-selling sites whose names you haven’t heard before Sunday would fit into this category.

“Getting a Super Bowl spot gives these small players amazing reach and credibility,” he adds. “They’re saying they have the money and want to be top-of-mind.”

It’s not flawless — Scroope points to Quibi, the ill-fated, bite-sized video channel that advertised last year and is already vapor — but when the Super Bowl alchemy works, it can change a company’s entire trajectory.

Masks vs no masks: In most of the ads released prior to Sunday, few if any masks are visible. It’s a pretty striking contrast to much of America, where masks are omnipresent. The question is, should ads reflect our current reality, or present an idealized version of it? On a larger scale, advertisers face the question of whether to refer to COVID at all in their spots.

“Most advertisers are going to focus on it as an undertone,” Steinberg says. “They’ll be less likely to bring up the term ‘COVID,’ since that term doesn’t invoke ‘please go buy my product.’”

Naming COVID in anything less than the most respectful possible terms seems like trouble. For instance, a certain beer company could craft a commercial trying to get the coronavirus to change its name … but they’d likely be blasted as insensitive and tone-deaf given the virus’s catastrophic impact.

To a large degree, though, there’s no one true path through the forest here. When every facet, every creation, every product of American life gets filtered through a political/social lens, the only guarantee is that someone will be upset.

“If you go all-in with something inspirational, odds are given this hyperpartisan environment, it’ll be inspirational to 50 percent of your audience and offensive to half your audience,” says Dr. Mike Lewis of Emory University’s Marketing Analytics Center. “If you make a reference to COVID, half of the audience is going to say ‘this is appropriate, we’re in a crisis.’ The other half is going, ‘you cannot leave anything alone [and just stick to sports].’ You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Edgy vs. traditional: When you’re appealing to an audience of 100 million, you don’t want to go too abstract or artsy. But then you don’t want to just traffic in treacly cliches, either. It’s a balancing act, but all too often, advertisers don’t even get out onto the tightrope.

“The Super Bowl is known for [ads that use] humor, but most brands are reluctant to engage in humor,” Lewis says. “The audience is more mature than people give them credit for. But there’s so much risk aversion in the corporate world.”

Taylor points to the Amazon Alexa ad as one that could work from an edgy perspective. “Sexual appeals in the Super Bowl ads have really died out over the last 10 years or so,” he says. “There was a time when you had men lusting after Cindy Crawford, ads like that, but those haven’t gone over well lately. But here’s Amazon, reversing it.”

The Amazon ad features a married woman who is … intrigued, let’s put it that way, by Alexa as personified by a handsome, enticing Michael B. Jordan. “It’s a clever reversal,” Taylor says, “and it shows that when something is done the right way, in a creative way, it can be effective again.”

Celebs vs everyday folks: The warm glow of nostalgia is always a safe bet in turbulent times, and this year, that means familiar faces will be cascading across your screen with the frequency of Patrick Mahomes passes. Get ready for a heavy dose of remember-when with familiar stars like Jason Alexander, Matthew McConaughey, Deion Sanders and John Travolta.

“The movie industry is in a very different state this year,” Scroope says. “Big celebrities have fallen out of the spotlight. In a weird way, the Super Bowl is how they can jump back into the mix.”

“We’re clearly seeing more celebrities and more humor this year than usual,” Taylor says. “In the past 10 years, celebrities have made up about 36.5 percent of all ads. This year, it’s almost half. Advertisers are shooting for familiarity, themes that make viewers comfortable.”

Funny vs. serious: The question of whether to go for tears or laughs is one that faces every brand, but this year it’s a more pressing concern than ever. Play it too jokey, and you run the risk of being deemed insensitive to the real world; lean too far in a solemn direction, and you risk blowback for not being escapist enough.

“It’s going to be a barbell,” Steinberg says. “Brands will either go fully empathetic, or nostalgic humor. I don’t think it’ll be gross humor — that would be really missing the tone on where we are as a society.”

“The key word is uncertainty,” Lewis says. “No one knows quite what to do, and no one wants to set the wrong tone.”

Lewis points out an important element of Super Bowl ads: They’re geared to win the approval of next-day graders and polling services, a group which may not necessarily reflect the views of a significant segment of the population.

“If you’re playing to the judges and want your ad featured the next day, it’s obvious which way you go,” he says. “The winners [of ad competitions] are always aligned with whatever’s the dominant culture of the moment.”

For the record, at least according to Unruly’s metrics, the Mila Kunis/Ashton Kutcher Cheetos ad featuring Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” is the early leader among the most impactful and resonant ads released so far.

The Super Bowl ads are here, and also a football game. (Getty)
The Super Bowl ads are here, and also a football game. (Getty)

“A lot of brands are holding their breath,” Scroope says, “but already we’re seeing really strong emotional reactions and strong emotional favorability. This could be a very big year.”

Here’s what we do know: there will be ads that take us by surprise, ads that make us laugh despite ourselves, ads that make us get more choked up than we want to be during a football game, and ads that make us cringe so hard we wish we could unsee them. You know, just like in normal times.

We’ll be dissecting and grading the ads as they go live right here on Yahoo Sports. Join us on Sunday evening, won’t you?

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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