Big Super Bowl advertisers bow out amid struggle with tone

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The Super Bowl may be known for its commercials, but even the advertising world isn’t expecting a lot of touchdowns this year.

A startling number of brands known for showcasing new commercials during the big football season finale are bowing out Super Bowl LV this year as advertisers struggle to hit the right note in a country plagued by the coronavirus pandemic, social and political unrest and record unemployment. Those that stay in the game are largely expected to play it safe, experts say.

“There is trepidation around Super Bowl advertising this year,” said Bill Oberlander, co-founder and executive creative of ad agency Oberlander. “For the Super Bowl, you generally go big or go home. I think brands are going home rather than spending tens of millions of dollars and not getting it right. They’re saying, ‘let’s wait until this s–storm clears.’”

The most recent brand to pass on Super Bowl LV is beverage giant Coca-Cola, which has run an ad during the closely watched football game every year since 2006 — except in 2019 when it aired a pre-game ad instead.

“This difficult choice was made to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times,” Coca-Cola said.

Also out is Hyundai, Olay, Avocados From Mexico, Little Caesars and Ford.

In ending its six-year Super Bowl advertising streak, Avocados From Mexico said it’s “reinventing” itself for its return to the game next year. Hyundai, which has run ads in 12 of the past 13 Super Bowls, also hinted the time-out is temporary, saying it “will certainly be back.”

That’s not to say Super Bowl LV, scheduled to air on Feb. 7 on CBS, will be ad free. Big brands like M&M’s, TurboTax, Anheuser-Busch, Toyota, Pringles and Mountain Dew have all paid handsomely for the right to run commercials in front of what is usually the biggest television audience of the year.

And rates this year have held up at around $5.5 million for a 30-second slot, down just slightly from last year’s rate of $5.6 million per 30 seconds.

But ad space as of early January hadn’t yet been sold out, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. In 2019, by contrast, Fox Sports sold out its inventory by Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, brands that take the plunge are expected to tread carefully given the divided political climate, the pandemic and both the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements. 

“Every client conversation I’ve had these days is about who is going to be offended by this ad,” said Rob Schwartz, chief executive officer of ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. “There’s a lot of discussion about risk mitigation. What that tends to do is that it makes things very bland and not effective or it forces you to look at universal topics like hope or humor.”

Oberlander agreed. “The country is so divided and split right down the middle that I don’t think that there’s a commercial that will appease both sides.”

He pointed to Gillette’s 2019 Super Bowl spot, which riffed on its longtime slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” by asking the question: “Is this the best a man can get?” The ad showed boys bullying each other and men touching women’s shoulders during a business meeting.

It was meant to address toxic masculinity and the MeToo movement, but instead ruffled feathers. Pepsi also suffered backlash in its nod to the Black Lives Matter movement with a 2017 Super Bowl ad starring Kendall Jenner, which was criticized as trivializing.

Both the Gillette and Pepsi ads may have had important messages about being better, but they proved “polarizing,” Oberlander said, noting that the stakes this year are even higher. 

Humor is expected to play a big role because there’s almost always an appetite for laughter during sporting events. 

“If the Super Bowl was this week or next, we might have some people wondering if humor is the right thing, but I think next month there’s the perspective that people will want to have some levity,” said Tiffany Rolfe, global creative creative officer of marketing and ad firm R/GA. Deeper, more purpose-driven ads will also play a role this year, she said.

Cheetos has already hinted that it plans to take this route with a silly teaser Super Bowl commercial it’s released starring actor Ashton Kutcher. The 30-second pseudo-thriller shows Kutcher flipping through a manila envelope while mysterious music plays before pulling out an empty Crunch Pop Mix bag. “I knew it,” he says.

Brands that get serious this year will want to send a unifying message like Chrysler’s 2012 commercial starring Clint Eastwood about the resilience of the auto industry at a time when the US was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, experts said.

“It’s halftime,” Eastwood says in his trademark gravely voice. “Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.”

Eastwood closes the spot with a moving pep talk: “How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win? This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America. And, our second half is about to begin.”

Schwartz said a successful ad could feature a similar pep talk from a universally loved figure like Tom Hanks. “Clint Eastwood may be too polarizing,” he quipped.

Oberlander surmised that a “leadership brands” like Nike, Apple or Google would be better positioned to weigh in on the mood of the country. Referencing Nike’s 2019 ad celebrating the Women’s National Soccer Team victory as a moment to celebrate the team’s win as a victory for “everyone,” Oberlander said the brand could pull something similar off to address race.

The exec said he could imagine a spot that shows athletes of different races playing sports together and helping each other win, in order to show that we “have more in common than we are different.”  

David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at ad agency BBDO, the agency behind this year’s M&M’s ad, said the stakes are always high when it comes to the Super Bowl because it’s the only time “people tune in on purpose to see the ads.”

In that sense, he said, this year likely won’t be different than any other.

“The Super Bowl is going to be like it was for the last 30 years, meaning, for the 75 brands advertising it’s going to be a big waste of money, and for 10 it is going to be a bargain.”

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