Super Bowl advertisers: Entertain us, help us—or get out of the way

With an epic game on tap and an audience primed for a shared moment, brands better not blow it.

Super Bowl advertisers: Entertain us, help us—or get out of the way
[Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Palto/iStock]

What a year it’s been.


We all know the details; we’ve been living with them since at least last March.

Through it all, brands have wrestled with what to say, when to say it, and how best to reflect our feelings in their advertising. When the pandemic first hit, brands immediately pulled their advertising from the marketplace. The move was driven partially by sensitivity and not wanting to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Part of it was also an opportunity to cut budgets, save marketing expenses, and move the funds to the bottom line.

Once brands felt it was safe to return, we were bombarded with empathy. Car companies, mobile phone providers, soft drinks, beer companies, insurance companies, technology companies—they all told us that they understood how we felt. They said they were “in this with us.” They said we are going to “get through it together.”

I was left to wonder: Do you really know how I feel? Do you truly care about me? Are we actually “in this together?” The empathy played well—until it quickly became commoditized—supported by montages of images and inspiring music. But even in that moment, they still couldn’t resist telling me that they were happy to offer extended zero percent financing and “touchless delivery” of a new SUV.

Just as we’d expect from any empathetic friend.


Now, I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that when the pandemic hit us, I was concerned for my family. I was worried about my parents and my siblings. I watched the news daily and saw the images of people dying in hospital beds without their loved ones by their side. Maybe it’s just me, but not once did I ever consider how nice it would be to have a “touchless delivery” of a new car.

What brands are thinking—and should be thinking—heading into the big game

As we approach next week’s Super Bowl game, many of us in the marketing world are busy working with our agencies to come up with the clever commercial that grabs your attention—one that ends up on the top of the Ad Meter the day after the game and dominates your social media feeds with favorable comments and shares. Many marketers are on Zoom calls as we speak, plotting out the big idea, the right way to pull on our heartstrings, make us cry, and manufacture a moment to remind us of all we have in common.

After last week’s inauguration, there is certainly some hope and optimism in the air. However, we are still a deeply divided country. And the worst days of this awful pandemic may still be in front of us.

Here’s what I hope we’ll see. First, brands need to show restraint from telling us it’s going to be okay and that they “get” us, because their definition of okay may not be the same as ours.

They also shouldn’t just assume that we want them to pretend everything is normal, either. No one wants to hear about a new car-buying app, teeth-whitening formula, or mortgage. No one wants to hear about floor mats or avocados from Mexico (wait, that actually sounds pretty good . . . put me down as a maybe on the guac). Please, no sappy songs of unity. No flag waving. No patriotic rah-rah messages.


I hope we see brands understand why we are all watching the Super Bowl to begin with. We’re watching it to escape. We are watching it, even if it’s only for a few hours, to forget all of the things we’re dealing with. I hope I see brands understand that we are watching the game to be entertained.

I get it: Brands just can’t resist talking about themselves. I know that the NFL and the network need the money from the ads. The Super Bowl offers a huge audience. And I know they are still going to run their ads. They can’t resist the big stage.

However, this year isn’t the time for them to tell us anything. This is the time for them to get out of the way and let us enjoy the Super Bowl.

In short, I’d tell my fellow marketers: too soon.

What brands that get it will do

So far, the leader in this movement to entertain us belongs to Pepsi. It decided to pull its in-game ads and instead focus efforts on bringing us an entertaining halftime show featuring The Weeknd. This is a great example of a brand understanding why we are watching. Other marketers should take notice.


Brands, if you’re reading this and are going to run an ad, please listen and understand. We want to smile. We want to fall off the couch laughing. We want to be entertained. If you’re showing up to try to create some explicit kumbaya moment, you’re only reminding us of the problems in the world. And that’s not why we’re tuned in. We want more things like last year’s Groundhog Day ad from Jeep, or more snickers from the folks at . . . Snickers.

Also: You’re almost certainly going to fail.

Perhaps you can do something to be useful. We would rather you use the $10 million (or more) you have budgeted for commercials and do something meaningful. Maybe instead of running a spot for your new SUV, you could take the money and buy $10 million worth of movie tickets from a struggling theater chain and give them to frontline medical workers to use once restrictions are finally lifted. I can’t think of too many people more ready to escape reality for a few hours with a loved one than they must be.

Do something nice for someone. This move alone will bring you five times the return in exposure.

Use your ad money to do something nice for me, for us.


If brands want to play a part in getting us back to normal, then just help us with a simple, normal gesture. Show us a little humanity.

Your acts will be judged much more favorably than your ad will. Not too many people will remember your Super Bowl spot six months from now, but they will never forget a simple gesture, a sign that shows that you really do understand why we’re watching the game to begin with.

Make us laugh until we cry tears of joy.

This is what we need now more than ever.

Here we are now, entertain us.


If not, please don’t bother showing up.

Geoff Cottrill is cofounder of Marvin Media and a former senior marketing executive at Coca-Cola, Converse/Nike, Starbucks, and P&G. He is also a lifelong Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan who is not in the market for a new SUV.