We all know that 2020 was a difficult and historic year. When last year’s Super Bowl aired on February 3, 2019 the first coronavirus death in America (February 6, 2020) was yet to be recorded. When Super Bowl LV aired on February 7, 2021 America had lost 463,000 lives to the virus.
The United States has been a divided country for the last many years. Red and Blue. This year even more so. The country continues to be divided on issues like guns and reproduction, but now there is a fundamental difference in how Americans see reality. Even truth is in question. In 2020 our country’s divide reached its apotheosis. In addition to the pandemic – itself politicized, we witnessed the Black Lives Matter protests, and on January 6, 2021 the insurrection at the Capitol. By comparison, 2019 was almost a time of innocence.
The Super Bowl Goes On
The Super Bowl is the premier television event of every year. This year, while ratings were the lowest since 2007, the Super Bowl was still watched by 96.4 million viewers across television and streaming platforms. There is simply no other way to communicate with that many people in one place at one time with a brand message.
If you want to take a stand on something you and your customers care about, do so with conviction and the knowledge that some won’t agree with you.
We look at Super Bowl ads to tell us something about the pulse of the country. What advertisers surmise their customers are thinking and feeling so they can reach them with product messages that will resonate in these challenging times. No advertiser who invests $5.5 million for 30 seconds of sell (excluding production costs, which can more than double the price of an ad) wants to alienate a customer. Advertisers want to be in sync with the times. They invest in consumer research to know and understand their customers and to create messages that will bond brands to buyers.
The NFL Takes a Stand. Sort of.
Ahead of the kickoff, the NFL opened the game with a poem by National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman – now famous from her star turn at Joe Biden’s Inauguration. Gorman’s Super Bowl introductory poem, “Chorus of Captains,” saluted the three honorary game captains – “Today we honor our three captains for their actions and impact in a time of uncertainty and need,” in a stunning pre-recorded video performance heralding the good works of each captain. It was a moving salute, and, unsurprisingly, Gorman was the first poet ever to perform at a Super Bowl.
At halftime, the NFL ran “Inspire Change,” a 60-second spot about unity: “Football is a microcosm of America, all races, religions, living, playing, side by side…” With stirring music under footage of Black Lives Matter protests, civil rights and voting rights rallies, and a nod to the late John Lewis, the NFL declares, “while our season is over our fight for equity is not,” pledging $250 million to end systemic racism. But, there is much work ahead. Colin Kaepernick who began kneeling for racial justice in 2016 remains a free agent today. In the 2020 season, 75 percent of NFL players are Black, 32 percent are Black starting quarterbacks, 100 percent of owners are white, and only three of 32 NFL head coaches (ten percent) are Black.
Some Opted Out
Coke did not run a spot this year making the “…difficult choice to insure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times.” For the first time in 37 years there was no Budweiser ad in the Super Bowl — although the Clydesdales were seen briefly in a spot for Sam Adams. Instead, Budweiser is “reallocating its investment” to those affected by the pandemic, “to support critical awareness of the Covid 19 Vaccine,” via the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative. Other long-term Super Bowl advertisers – including Kia, Hyundai, Planters, Pepsi and Audi, similarly opted out citing resource allocation or charitable donations instead.
Unmasked: Most Ads Ignored the Pandemic
Most ads did not refer to the pandemic. Or anything of gravitas for that matter. The only masks seen at the Super Bowl were on the sidelines staff and on the faces of some of the 22,000 live fans – the 30,000 cardboard cutouts placed to fill the stadium and help social distancing were unmasked.
The workers in 5 to 9, a much-publicized ad for Square Space directed by Academy Award winner Damian Chazelle with rewritten lyrics to Parton’s 1980 hit 9 to 5 showed unmasked workers in their cubicles waiting for the clock to strike 5 so they could pursue their entrepreneurial dreams with a Square Space website. The job search website Indeed, “We help people get jobs,” showed workers looking for and finding jobs on Indeed’s site, to the anthem Rise Up, but the ad certainly did not note the devastating unemployment statistics. By some estimates up to 30 million Americans are out of work as a result of the pandemic. And Door Dash’s delivery workers did not mask up for Daveed Diggs and the Muppets — apparently the pandemic has not yet reached Sesame Street.
If the pandemic was referenced at all, it was done in code. Scott’s Miracle Grow featuring John Travolta and daughter Emma making a TikTok dance video outside on their lawn, notes that “the back yard has had quite a year.” Bass Pro Shops and Cabela reminded us that while we “may be feeling a little cooped up, the great outdoors is wide open.” For Guinness, football legend Joe Montana ponders “how you come back from a bad play or the hardest year ever,” but looks forward to “the greatest year that’s still ahead of us.”
Advertisers relied on the usual combination of humor and celebrities to deliver light, upbeat messages. When you have only 30 seconds to tell a story and connect customers with brands, celebrities are a quick way to gain attention and cement a story. The best use of celebrities were those who contributed to the storyline effortlessly in roles that featured the star’s unique persona like actor Michael B. Jordan, People Magazine’s 2020 Sexiest Man Alive, in his role as Alexa’s voice. Academy Award winner Timothee Chalemet and Wynona Ryder starred in Cadillac’s homage to the 1990 cult film classic Edward Sissorhands in an endearing spot that piqued awareness for the all-electric Cadillac Lyric and its hands-free technology. GM enlisted Will Ferrell’s slapstick humor to promote its push to have 30 new electric vehicles by 2025. In each of these spots the celebrities were used in ways which got attention quickly and naturally enhanced the overall selling message.
Meeting in the Middle
After a dozen years of trying, Jeep recruited Bruce Springsteen to star in a commercial, the first one ever for “the Boss.” The two-minute ad, an “Ode to the ReUnited States of America” — a $55 million dollar media investment (excluding the cost for Springsteen and the music he wrote for the commercial) urges Americans to meet in the middle. Jeep has had success in the past with striking ads featuring iconic celebrities. Last year’s, Groundhog Day re-do with Bill Murray was a standout. This year, not so much. While making a call for unity and appealing for middle ground – “the very soil we stand on is common ground,” the commercial looks to what “connects us” and “hope on the road ahead.” Driving around in a Jeep in the very center of the country, at a “rural chapel in Kansas,” Springsteen’s working-class ethos is seen and heard. But the ad was “the most divisive” in Adweek polls on social media on Super Bowl Sunday registering an equal 50 percent love and 50 percent hate on Instagram with similar divisions on Twitter. In these divisive times, the message of unity is itself partisan. Each side of the political divide sees the other as not contributing to unity according to Brandwatch, a digital consumer intelligence platform. And if the divided response to Jeep’s Springsteen ad were not enough, the company had to pull the ad from all platforms three days post-game after learning that Springsteen had a DWI pending in his home state of New Jersey. They should have known that.
What Did We Learn?
We are living in trying times. We all know that. Consumers want friendly, reliable, honest, upbeat messages. It seems they don’t want to be reminded of their (and other’s) difficulties, or of the things they are missing. But they do want to be represented aspirationally and with empathy. These ads tell us that consumers want to be entertained, warmly and without a cutting edge.
We know the country is divided and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. Most advertisers understood this and avoided controversy, relying instead on upbeat, lighthearted messages that provide respite and entertainment.
- Knowing your customer is always primary in communications. If you choose to take a stand on something you and your customers care about, do so with conviction and the knowledge that some won’t agree with you.
- If you want to support a cause that resonates for your brand and your customers be authentic about it. Consumers, especially younger consumers respond to brands who stand for something and give back. But they see through hollow, self-promoting, opportunistic efforts.
- If you want to use a celebrity to deliver or enhance your message, make the most of this investment by keeping the storyline aligned to the celebrity’s brand story as well as your own.
And, if you choose to sit out these difficult times and invest communications resources in other aspects of your business, planning for the future or waiting for better times to come, this is as good a time as any to do so, especially if you don’t have a compelling story to tell or want to take a stand – one way, or another.