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How Super Bowl ads get weird during a topsy-turvy year

The Super Bowls in the wake of September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis provide a glimpse into how marketers approach years of cultural crisis.

How Super Bowl ads get weird during a topsy-turvy year
[Photo: Budweiser]
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On January 25, AB InBev announced that its flagship U.S. beer brand, Budweiser, would be skipping the Super Bowl for the first time in 37 years.

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No majestic Clydesdales. No puppy pals. No “Wassup,” “Frogs,” or the 2021 equivalent of those iconic ads.

Instead, Bud is donating some of its 2021 advertising budget to the vaccine awareness work being done by the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative.

“Like everyone else, we are eager to get people back together, reopen restaurants and bars, and be able to gather to cheers with friends and family,” Budweiser vice president of marketing Monica Rustgi said in a statement. “To do this, and to bring consumers back into neighborhood bars and restaurants that were hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic, we’re stepping in to support critical awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

A great cause!

Let’s be clear, though, that this isn’t as major a move as it may first appear. Bud’s parent company still has about four minutes of ad time on Sunday, which it will use to tout siblings such as Michelob Ultra and Bud Light. If you want to be a cynic (and we do), the extensive media coverage of Bud’s absence has been worth about as much as if it had bought its usual allotment of Super Bowl ads. CNN even put together a Best Of compilation of all the brand’s past Super Bowl hits. By making itself a story ahead of the game, AB InBev actually ensured that its brand wouldn’t get lost in the wave of other ads scrambling for our collective attention. The company gets the message out that it cares about COVID-19 relief and vaccine awareness, while still leveraging the game’s massive reach for its other brands. Win-win.

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Other major Super Bowl vet advertisers taking a breather this year are Audi, Avocados From Mexico, Kia, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola. A Coke spokesperson told CNBC, “This difficult choice was made to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times.”

Yes, these unprecedented times.

The Super Bowl is essentially all of the marketing dilemmas of the past 10 months boiled down to one football game. Brands are cautious, not wanting to appear too frivolous, but then others are struggling to avoid being too serious. When do people want sad piano music and when do they want escapism? Frankly, it comes down to who your brand is and its relationship with its audience. There is much about the past year that’s unprecedented, but creating a Super Bowl ad in disrupted, tragic, and, er, unprecedented times does have precedent. Actually, quite a bit of it.

Back in 2002, for the Super Bowl mere months after the September 11 terror attacks, Budweiser created a solemn spot featuring the Clydesdales paying tribute to New York City. No voiceover, no tagline, and it only ever ran that one time.

In that same game, however, there was also a . . . less solemn, let’s say, Bud Light ad that addressed the unintended risk of satin sheets.

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Here you had a company using its brands to appeal to a broad range of viewers—those who wanted to see an acknowledgment of a cultural moment, and those who just wanted to laugh at a beer ad. Anheuser-Busch knew it wouldn’t be able to please every one of the tens of millions watching the game, so why not diversify?

More recently, the 2008 financial crisis was another pregame cultural reality that put a damper on the marketing mood. Unemployment had risen from 4.8% to 8%, the country was riddled with collapsed mortgages, and the $700 billion bailouts for banks and automakers hadn’t been announced yet.

That year, Budweiser went into full escapism mode, with its best-rated Super Bowl spot of the game featuring a Clydesdale playing fetch. Meanwhile, Hyundai spotted an opportunity to make a mark, dropping an ad that addressed the situation head-on. Voiced by Jeff Bridges and created by agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the ad introduced the automaker’s Assurance program, saying, “Now finance or lease any new Hyundai, and if you lose your income in the next year, you can return it with no impact on your credit.”

Hyundai’s market share jumped that year to 4.3%, from 3.1%, and by September, while car sales overall had dropped 22%, Hyundai’s were up 27%. “This is a recession of fear,” Joel Ewanick, Hyundai’s then-VP of marketing, told AdAge at the time. “We realized that the elephant in the room was the fear of losing your job. I feel the same way. We all do. The idea of giving people the option to give the car back if they were struggling . . . seemed a great way to make customers comfortable and increase our market share in an economy like this.”

Marketers have now had almost a year of advertising amid our collective pandemic reality, so expect the vibe to be more Super Bowl fun than solemn self-reflection. Which is fine! Again, knowing the right answer when it comes to a Super Bowl message comes down to who a brand is and whether it knows its place in culture or not. AB InBev, for example, knows that people will totally accept Budweiser appearing to take one for the team, and it knows they’ll laugh at the last 10 months of our lives being visually represented by people—crowded together! Not wearing masks!—getting pelted with lemons. It knows we want to be entertained.

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But just like Hyundai in 2009, there is always room for an outlier. While everyone else is either getting goofy or just too sappy in all the wrong places, there will be room for that one perfect tearjerker. Google came close last year with “Loretta,” but now the emo stakes are even higher. All the ingredients are out there. A baby or maybe a puppy, the emotional toll of isolation, grief, fear, and uncertainty, combined with a need to connect, laugh, and feel some semblance of normalcy, even if for 30 seconds during our annual paean to consumer entertainment?

Whew, getting kinda dusty in here, eh?

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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