‘Walking the tight rope’: Super Bowl advertisers try to strike right tone after tumultuous 2020
During the past 12 months, we've seen the arrival of a pandemic and a falsely contested election. A nationwide social justice movement and racial reckoning. The end of one presidential impeachment. The start of another. Widespread economic uncertainty. And the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Any one of these events would be enough to complicate the high-stakes world of Super Bowl advertising, where brands spend $5.5 million or more for a 30-second audience with 100 million people.
Take all of them together and the result is one of the most complex backdrops in the history of advertising's marquee event.
"This is probably the most eagerly anticipated Super Bowl that I’ve been a part of," said Saatchi & Saatchi chief creative officer Jason Schragger, an industry veteran who worked on Toyota's ad this year. "The thing that’s really difficult is walking the tight rope."
That metaphorical tight rope, of course, is tone. Given the enormous price tag and potential reach of a Super Bowl commercial, there's significant pressure to get it right — to deliver a message that will resonate and feel appropriate for the moment.
And during Sunday's broadcast of Super Bowl 55, when the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, advertising insiders and experts say it will be even trickier than usual to hit the right notes.
"It’s a very complicated year for Super Bowl advertising," said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "It is quite possible to offend a lot of people with a Super Bowl ad — which is so different than every other piece of advertising that runs during the year.
"No one gets too upset about a piece of advertising that runs during 'The Bachelor.' But people get really upset about what runs during the Super Bowl."
USA TODAY's Ad Meter has been ranking Super Bowl commercials by consumer rating since 1989, tracking more than 1,700 ads to date. While some brands and strategies have had strong runs, Super Bowl advertising is always a bit of a guessing game.
This year, there's been plenty of second-guessing, too.
For months, brands have grappled with questions of entertainment value and solemnity — whether they should directly acknowledge the challenges of 2020, or ignore them and give viewers a temporary escape. Can a Super Bowl ad this year be funny without seeming flippant, for example? Serious without being a downer? Inspirational but also authentic?
"It's somewhat high-risk, high-reward, at a moment like this," said Janet Balis, a marketing practice leader at Ernst & Young Americas. "It's really a matter of the degree of risk that a brand wants to take."
'A lot of conversations'
The creative process behind a Super Bowl ad is lengthy and nuanced.
Most brands partner with an outside creative agency and spend months brainstorming potential ideas and themes for their commercials, then weeks shooting and producing them. That means the wheels for an ad are often already in long before it airs.
In a normal year, predicting the appropriate message for a future time is challenging. But the uncertainty this year tested even the most seasoned Super Bowl advertisers.
"We had a lot of conversations on every single word and every single piece that is part of this, to say, 'Is it OK? Is it the right thing?'" Schragger said. "Are we not acknowledging some peoples’ suffering? Are we not acknowledging other things? How can we do something that actually helps people through this time without sort of being flippant or needlessly inspirational? It is a really tough one."
Schragger's team considered a few different approaches before landing on a heartwarming theme for its 60-second Super Bowl spot, which spotlights 13-time Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long and her adoption from a Russian orphanage.
Other brands, meanwhile, decided to stick to a tried-and-true formula of Super Bowl advertising: Celebrity cameos and humor.
Amazon's ad, for example, features Michael B. Jordan as a sexy, imaginary exterior for "Alexa," following its similarly comedic spots in recent years. Doritos' commercial stars a 2D version of Matthew McConaughey. And Bud Light attempted to fuse humor and nostalgia by reuniting the classic characters of past Super Bowl ads, from the "Bud Knight" to the "Real Men of Genius" singer.
"We felt like what made sense for the Bud Light personality and what made sense for what Bud Light fans expect is … to bring that smile, or that levity, or that lightheartedness," Bud Light senior brand director Joe Lennon said. "We felt like, if that was missing from this year’s Super Bowl, our fans would be disappointed."
“Bud Light Legends” campaign reunites some of the beer brand's most iconic characters. (Photo: Bud Light)
Tarun Kushwaha, a marketing professor in the School of Business at George Mason University, said that for all the inherent complexities of Super Bowl advertising this year, the goal is ultimately the same. Every company wants to refine the perception of its brand while also telling viewers "we get it, we're with you."
"I think the choice of the message, and tone of the message, is going to be very important," Kushwaha said. "Humor can cut both ways, right? … Humor is one way to get over deep grief, as long as it's done well. But I think emotional ads are going to be significantly better at overcoming the events of 2020."
Experts forecast warmth, unity
More than a dozen brands have already released their full Super Bowl commercials in the lead-up to Sunday's game, offering a glimpse of the broader advertising slate to come. Many of them are addressing the tumult of 2020 head on, in one way or another.
Bud Light Seltzer is taking a humorous approach to its ad for a new lemonade-flavored beverage, for instance, explaining that the brand decided to make lemonade after "2020 handed us all those lemons."
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Others, like Chipotle and the NFL, strike more serious notes. The former posits that "a burrito can change the world," while the latter features a likeness of Vince Lombardi walking through America and delivering an inspirational speech.
Then there's Budweiser, which made headlines last month by announcing that it would forego its Super Bowl advertising for the first time in 37 years — and instead donate the associated costs to vaccine awareness efforts.
Experts believe these hopeful, unifying messages — which have long been a part of Super Bowl commercials — will be particularly prevalent this year. The most popular route will be to play it safe.
"There will be an underlying message of getting along and community and connectedness — the countervailing sense of what we've had over the last year," said Kimberly Whitler, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
A scene from Toyota's new Super Bowl ad, "Upstream," featuring 13-time Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long. (Photo: Courtesy of Toyota)
Calkins, the Northwestern professor, believes many companies will use a similar tone but be deliberately unspecific in their ads. They'll be warm and empowering with their messages, but in a general "we can do this" sort of way.
"Scotts will tell us to 'keep growing,' and Michelob Ultra will tell us to 'find joy in the journey,' " Calkins said. "I think we’ll see a lot of brands stick to these positive themes. … And then we'll see a few of these advertisers try to figure out this complicated world we live in, and make a bigger statement about our society."
For many advertisers, the challenge this year is not just hitting the right tone, but also standing out among the other brands that could go in the same direction.
There will multiple commercials that call for unity, for example. But at what point does that message start to appear inauthentic? And there will likely be several ads that acknowledge or offer thanks to front-line workers in the fight against COVID-19. At what point do they begin to blend together?
"If you’re going to go out and thank health care workers or thank frontline workers, you’ve got to be nervous that everybody else is going to go the same way," Calkins said.
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First-time Super Bowl advertisers will face their own challenges as they step into the void left by juggernauts that decided to sit out this year's game. In the absence of commercials from Coca-Cola and Kia, for instance, there will instead be spots from brands like Dexcom, which makes continuous glucose monitoring systems for people with diabetes, and Klarna, a Swedish bank.
Newcomer brands have a history of taking big swings in their Super Bowl debuts and whiffing. Balis, of Ernst & Young Americas, thinks there might even be a brand this year that whiffs so badly it generates buzz on social media, and actually still ends up helping itself.
"Even if it’s not the message that they’ll intend, they’ll probably get their brands out there and create some curiosity around themselves," she said. "We may see one of those this year."
Ultimately, though, brands both new and old are entering this weekend's broadcast with the same goal in mind, hoping their ads strike the right note and leave a lasting impression despite the challenging landscape that 2020 has left behind.
"This is really shaping up to be an astonishing Super Bowl," Calkins said. "I can’t speak to the football, but I'm very confident the advertising will be really interesting to watch."
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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