Super Bowl Commercials: To Address or Avoid the Pandemic?

Some of the biggest players on Super Bowl Sunday won’t be wearing helmets. They’re the company executives and ad makers who will be monitoring the reaction to the big-budget commercials that will have their television debuts before an expected audience of 100 million viewers.

They are likely to be more jittery than usual this year. In addition to having made a very expensive bet — CBS charged approximately $5.5 million for 30 seconds of ad time — people who work in marketing have been worried about the tone they should take during a pandemic that has killed nearly 450,000 Americans. Brands that decide on a somber approach risk reminding viewers of what they had hoped to escape for a few hours, and the ones that try to be funny could seem out of step.

Faced with an unusual advertising challenge, a few companies that typically promote themselves during the broadcast — including Coca-Cola and Hyundai — decided to skip this year’s event. And with movie theaters having gone dark, or else selling a limited number of tickets, most major Hollywood studios won’t be teasing their summertime blockbusters as they usually do during the big game.

The job search site Indeed decided to address the difficulties of pandemic life head-on in its first Super Bowl commercial. The ad is meant to “highlight the emotional journey of job seekers at a time when many people are facing economic distress” because of the pandemic, the company said. Uber, on the other hand, is going for laughs and nostalgia with an Uber Eats commercial featuring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprising their “Wayne’s World” roles from their “Saturday Night Live” sketches and movies.

“People are obviously craving a return to ‘normal,’” said Thomas Ranese, Uber’s global marketing vice president. “We thought a lot about having a more sentimental message at the Super Bowl, pulling on heartstrings. But we just thought that people really need to laugh and have a bit of humor and a reprieve from how serious this whole year has been.”

Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, is hedging its bets. For the first time in 37 years, there will not be a splashy commercial for the King of Beers on Super Bowl Sunday. The company said it had donated some of its ad budget to the Ad Council, a nonprofit group behind a $50 million ad blitz to fight coronavirus vaccine skepticism.

Another Anheuser-Busch beverage, Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, is taking the funny route on Sunday, commemorating what it calls “a lemon of a year” in a commercial that shows lemons falling from the sky on wedding guests and cardboard cutouts of fans at a baseball game.

The director Damien Chazelle turned a Dolly Parton song into a dance number for a Squarespace commercial.Credit…Squarespace

Newcomers to Super Bowl advertising include companies that have thrived during the homebound pandemic months, a group that includes the delivery service DoorDash, the takeout-friendly Mexican chain Chipotle and the diaper company Huggies.

A surge of interest in lockdown gardening persuaded Scotts Miracle-Gro to run its first Super Bowl commercial. It shows Martha Stewart tending to tomatoes and John Travolta making a TikTok dance video with his daughter in a lush backyard. The company did not give the green light for the ad until mid-December, said John Sass, the vice president for advertising at Scotts.

“It wasn’t like this was some big, long-term plan,” he said. “The momentum carried us.”

The digital brokerage company Robinhood is making its Super Bowl advertising debut on Sunday.Credit…Robinhood

Squarespace’s commercial smacks of the Before Time. The website-building company hired Damien Chazelle, the director of the Oscar-winning 2016 musical “La La Land,” to put together a dance routine set to Dolly Parton’s revamp of her 1980 hit “9 to 5.” The new version, in praise of entrepreneurs, is called “5 to 9.”

Robinhood, the digital brokerage start-up, is making its Super Bowl debut with an ad shot before the company found itself under scrutiny in the stock market mania over GameStop, a frenzy driven by users of the Robinhood app. Its commercial presents moody shots of Americans from all walks of life (guys in cowboy hats at a bar; a young flower-shop proprietor; a harried parent of a newborn), and ends with the slogan, “You don’t need to become an investor. You were born one.”

With film production and marketing budgets hamstrung by the pandemic, many commercials have opted for simplicity. It’s a year for close-ups of individual people rather than the mega-productions with casts of thousands that some companies have rolled out on Super Bowl Sundays past.

From left, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprise their “Wayne’s World” characters, along with Cardi B, in an ad for Uber Eats.Credit…Uber

The game, from the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, filled to 30 percent capacity, will showcase Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending champions, against Tom Brady, the 10-time Super Bowl veteran and a new star of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although Tampa and Kansas City are midsize television markets and N.F.L. ratings have been down this season, some TV executives anticipate that the marquee quarterback matchup could draw 100 million or more viewers. Last year’s game had a television audience of 99.9 million.

Fox, which broadcast the 2020 contest, sold all of its Super Bowl ad space before the 2019 Thanksgiving holiday and generated $448.7 million in game-time ad revenue — a record, according to the research firm Kantar. Sales were slower this year, and CBS did not fill its roughly 70 slots until last week.

The attention generated by Super Bowl advertising extends beyond the game. Twice as many people might see the commercials on social media sites than during the broadcast, said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Brands also hope their ads are distinctive or dramatic enough to generate talk after the final whistle.

“But this echo effect that many brands bank on is not going to be as large this year,” Mr. Berger said. “Less people will be talking at the office on Monday morning, because they’re not going to be in the office.”

These days, for many companies, commercials are just one part of Super Bowl marketing. Verizon’s plan includes sponsorship of gaming sessions on Twitch, a Verizon-branded virtual stadium in the online video game Fortnite, and a live-streamed postgame concert featuring Alicia Keys and Miley Cyrus. The company’s traditional TV commercial “was the easiest of all the things we’re doing,” said Diego Scotti, Verizon’s chief marketing officer.

Matt Manning, the chief executive of the MKTG agency, said the Super Bowl was “probably the pre-eminent meeting event” for the ad industry in a typical year, adding that his colleagues often had trouble booking a hotel room within 20 miles of the stadium. This year, because of the pandemic, he’s not going, he said.

It will also be the first time in 15 years that Jeremy Carey, the managing director of Optimum Sports, will not attend the game. He said his company, the sports marketing division for the ad company Omnicom Media Group, handles as much as 20 percent of Super Bowl advertisers. Even at a distance from the field, he expects to feel tense on Sunday.

“It’s unlike anything else,” Mr. Carey said. “When you look at the top-performing programs out there, nothing even comes close. There are nervous jitters that go along with it — but if you didn’t have that as a Super Bowl marketer, I’d question your humanness.”

John Koblin contributed reporting.

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