The pandemic is taking the shine off next month’s Super Bowl — the biggest game in American football — for some of the most prominent commercial advertisers.
Blue-chip brands such as Budweiser and Coca-Cola, which for decades have fielded memorable ads for the National Football League championship game, say they are opting out this year. CBS, the Viacom network which will broadcast the game on February 7, finished selling its inventory of commercial slots just this week, according to a person briefed on the matter. Last year’s event sold out more than two months before kick-off.
The pandemic is shifting attitudes among some brands about their potential return on investment for an in-game Super Bowl commercial, which remains the priciest advertising real estate in US media. The price for a 30-second slot is expected to reach $5.6m this year, according to Kantar Media, up 7 per cent from last year’s rate, the previous all-time record.
For brands sitting out this year’s game, “it’s not so much about a reduction in spending but shifting how their dollars are spent. For the Super Bowl we’re going to see a lot more digital campaigns and social sweepstakes,” said Jeff Eccleston, co-head of global brand consulting at Creative Artists Agency.
An example of such a campaign this year is one by Corona, in which the beer label is soliciting fans to upload videos of themselves to social media with a corresponding hashtag.
Meanwhile, competing beverage brand Budweiser will not run an in-game ad for the first time since 1983, instead donating funds it planned to spend for its Super Bowl campaign to a vaccine-education initiative by the Ad Council.
The decision by Budweiser is notable because its corporate parent, the Belgian brewing conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, is a longtime NFL sponsor and the most prominent Super Bowl advertiser. The company accounted for roughly 10 per cent of total advertising revenues in each of the previous five Super Bowls according to Kantar, contributing $42m to last year’s total haul of $449m. This made it the biggest spending company paying for ads during the game.
Monica Rustgi, vice-president of marketing for Budweiser, said the brand decided at the last minute not to go forward with a planned Super Bowl ad, which they expect to release at a different time. The decision took into account the fact that the pandemic has scrambled typical routines — lockdowns mean people are not expected to gather in huge parties or at bars to watch the game.
“It’s all about in-home marketing, and in-home experience”, she said.
For companies under strain from the pandemic, a Super Bowl ad may not make financial sense. Coca-Cola said in August it would cut thousands of jobs after its steepest sales drop in a quarter century. Those challenges preceded its decision to sit out this year’s big game, a choice the company said “was made to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times”.
Super Bowl ads had grown to become theatre unto themselves, with companies hiring A-list celebrities like Brad Pitt and elaborate creative agencies to render funny, touching, or otherwise standout spots.
Overall, television remains the largest medium for US advertisers according to data from Kantar, with $12.2bn spent in the second quarter of 2020, while digital ads ranked second with $8.3bn spent. The pandemic scrambled spending in the early part of the year, with traditional media including print, radio and outdoor channels being hardest hit.
With companies of all sizes looking increasingly to digital ads, marketing consultants believe it will have an equalising effect for generating awareness for a given brand or product.
“Even if you’re not a tech company or a social or digital company, it will be easier to connect and find an audience if you are creating compelling content and storytelling”, said Mr Eccleston of CAA.
Nonetheless, CBS will have a full inventory of commercials for this year’s Super Bowl, a spokeswoman confirmed, which will pit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. Among companies planning spots are veteran game advertisers such as M&Ms candy, as well as newcomers including online gig-matching platform Fiverr.
Ms Rustgi of Budweiser said the brand fully expected to air a Super Bowl ad again when the pandemic subsided.
“There is still power to having a game day ad”, she said.
“Three-hundred and sixty-four days out of the year, commercials are out there running in the background. But the Super Bowl is probably the only time of the year that people are saying: ‘be quiet, I want to watch the ads’. You don’t get that with a social or digital campaign.”