What will Super Bowl advertising look like in 2021?

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The Super Bowl: It’s not only a competition for the teams on the field but also for the brands advertising during the broadcast. Being a winner in this high-stakes advertising showdown might be worth it but isn’t without major risks.

Greg Gerfen Courtesy WMU

Greg Gerfen, instructor of marketing at Western Michigan University and a 30-year veteran of the advertising industry, shared his perspective about this year’s Super Bowl ads in a year unlike any other.

What trends do you think we will see with Super Bowl ads this year?

This year’s Super Bowl will take viewers on an emotional rollercoaster. Some brands like M&M’s, Cheetos, Doritos and Pringles will use humor to help us take a break from bad news. Other advertisers will acknowledge our somber mood and try to provide hope and healing.

We are seeing many first-time advertisers as a result of the pandemic. These include companies like Mercari, Triller, Fiverr, Vroom, Chipotle, DoorDash, Hellmann’s and Huggies. These companies actually grew during the pandemic and are using the Super Bowl to build on their momentum.

Social causes other than the pandemic also will be prominent. Mercari will talk about sustainability, Chipotle will announce a program to help fund local farmers, DoorDash will talk about how it delivers more than just food by helping bring Main Street small businesses to consumers’ doorsteps. GM will run a corporate ad about a new battery for electric cars, and Cadillac will launch its first electric model.

Budweiser is donating the money it would typically spend on Super Bowl advertising to coronavirus vaccination awareness efforts. Can you comment on this approach?

Budweiser is taking its investment and using it to raise awareness about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines. Budweiser will purchase ad time throughout the year and donate it to the Ad Council. The Ad Council will run public service announcements encouraging the population to get vaccinated. Budweiser hopes that these efforts speed the ability for people to reunite in person, which will affect restaurant and bar traffic and consequently its business. Bud Light and Bud Light Seltzer will be advertisers during the game.

Did you work on any Super Bowl campaigns during your advertising career? What should our audience know about the process?

While I did not work on a Super Bowl campaign, the agency I worked at did work with Super Bowl advertisers, and I had to council my clients on whether or not to participate. Many times, we actually discouraged our clients from advertising in the game. The Super Bowl is not just the Super Bowl of football, but it is the Super Bowl of advertising. So much press coverage is given to the advertisers and their commercials. There are popularity polls such as USA Today’s Ad Meter that rank the popularity of the commercials. Brands run the risk of being at the bottom of these popularity polls. Now the $5.5 million investment made in running the commercial has done harm and generated negative publicity for the company that they have to dig out of.

Another risk is the huge price tag that comes with advertising in the game. This year, CBS is charging $5.5 million for 30 seconds, plus a mandatory $200,000 for streaming ads. In addition to the $5.7 million just to run the ad, the ad needs to be produced. Ads can cost $300,000 to over $1 million. Top that off with celebrity endorsement payments or music licensing, and the costs can easily approach $2 million. Finally, to maximize excitement and exposure, brands build entire programs around the fact they are advertising. They may run teaser ads like movie trailers that hint at what the commercials will be about. They use social media channels to run contests or promotions. It takes a tremendous amount of financial and personnel resources to be in the game.

What does a brand have to do in this year to be successful in their advertising efforts for the Super Bowl and in general?

This year, brands will have to walk the fine line between too humorous and “out there” and being too depressing and reminding us of just how bad things are. On one hand, brands may believe that laughter is the best medicine and try to entertain us to help us forget. Bud Light Seltzer will run an ad that humorously depicts the events of 2020 as turning lemons into lemonade to launch a new flavor of the beverage. Other brands acknowledge the situation and try to respect it and provide some measure of hope. An ad for the job posting site Indeed portrays real customers who have used the service to find new careers in the midst of the economic crisis the pandemic caused. Consumers will ultimately be the judge of which brands get it right.

Are there lessons from other significant historical events or campaigns in the recent past that brands and agencies will be looking to in order to inform efforts this year?

Brands may look to 9/11, the Great Recession and the Gulf War, but there really is no playbook for this year. Every year the Super Bowl comes around, brands must consider the mood of the country. Social media is ruthless with brands that go too far, so doing research upfront is always a good thing.

Another thing that brands should be learning from are past mistakes (and not just in Super Bowl advertising) that have been made. The ad industry has been painfully slow to diversify, and often, not all points of view are represented at the table when ads are being created. The industry needs to have diverse voices and opinions included or run the risk of making horrible blunders, as Pepsi did a few years back with the infamous Kendall Jenner ad where Jenner plays a model who diffuses a standoff at a protest, patterned after Black Lives Matter, simply by offering a police officer a Pepsi. The ad was taken down by the company within a day of its debut with a corporate apology as anger was expressed about the company exploiting Black experiences and not seeking the input of Black creators in the concept.

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