Many fans look to the Super Bowl for a great game and a celebratory event. A party with friends or a party of one. Always a time to snack and drink beer. This year’s Super Bowl marked the first-time victory for The Kansas City Chiefs in 50 years with an exciting 4th quarter finish that was viewed by 102 million people. Viewership for Super Bowl 54 was up 1.5 percent over last year and was the tenth largest audience in Super Bowl history.
The Super Bowl is television’s largest communal viewing event. Fox priced commercials at $5.6 million for 30 seconds this year and was sold out by November 2019. That figure excludes the cost of production for the ad itself, which may include special effects, celebrity fees and licensing costs for music, all of which can add extra millions to the price tag. Total ad spend this year is estimated at $435 million, a 29 percent increase over last year.
Advertisers flock to the event to capitalize on both the size of the audience and the upbeat, positive all-American environment to send a (hopefully) memorable message to their target audience.
In the current environment we see that advertisers are trying to engage consumers neutrally and with fun. It’s the least they can do in these difficult times. If you have something to sell, especially between now and the election, stay neutral.
Viewers actually watch and even look forward to seeing the commercials, which are considered mini-events of their own. Ads are rated best and worst by publications and consumers alike. Many advertisers release their ads ahead of the game, often in longer versions, and there are online and interactive forums that talk about the ads and the products they promote before, during and after the game extending the value of the message.
We look to the Super Bowl ads to learn something about the pulse of the American consumer. What did we see? What is different this year from last year?
Advertisers Are Risk-Adverse
This year most advertisers were risk averse. American consumers are exhausted from politics and the divisiveness we are experiencing in the country now. Unlike last year, when we saw some emotional ads for important issues, notably Anheuser-Busch InBev’s spot on sustainability and the Washington Post’s on democracy and the press, there were virtually no issue-oriented ads to be seen in 2020 until the closing NFL commercial. In that 60-second spot, retired 49er wide receiver Anquan Boldin talks about the 2015 death of his cousin Corey Jones in a police shooting. His cousin’s death inspired Boldin to start the Players Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to ending social injustice and racial inequality. The NFL supports this initiative, likely to counteract some of the bad publicity it has experienced over player health, safety and social issues (Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned) in recent years.
Advertisers use celebrities to gain quick awareness and attention. Celebrities are our own American royalty. Consumers look up to them, have opinions about them and identify with them, often strongly. Celebrities have become a part of our communal dialogue. With social media celebrities are accessible to the average American and have become an integral part of many lives. Celebrities seem to elevate us in some ethereal way.
This year celebrities were used more often in commercials than usual. Advertisers felt safe relying on celebrity spokespersons to deliver their messages, mostly light-hearted fare. Some commercials included multiple celebrities in a single spot. P&G used five for Olay — Katie Couric, Busy Philipps, Lily Singh, Taraji P. Henson and retired Astronaut Nicole Scott trying to appeal to a range of women across generations and race.
In my view, the best use of a celebrity in this sea of celebrities was Bill Murray’s return to Groundhog Day for Jeep. The game was played on the actual Groundhog Day, which made for a nice and relevant twist. In his first-ever television commercial appearance, Murray is seen in a wonderfully watchable spot-on performance, enjoying himself, driving his Jeep Gladiator, with the ground hog, Punxsutawney Phil, in tow as Sonny and Cher’s iconic I’ve Got You Babe plays in the background. This is as entertaining, upbeat and fun as a television commercial can be. There is no risk involved. No chance of alienating anyone. Murray is a gem and the commercial succeeds in putting a smile on the customer’s face.
Advertisers try to cement customer engagement by appealing to the heart. This year there were fewer emotionally wrenching commercials than in years past — but there were a few. Budweiser’s Typical Americans challenges stereotypes by showing often loud, boisterous, pushy, competitive Americans in a different light. Google’s “How Not to Forget” shows us how a widower uses Google to remember his wife. Las Vegas Raider’s running back Josh Jacobs looks back at his former homeless childhood self for Kia. Katie Sowers, the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl, uses her Microsoft Surface Pro as she works with players on the field. But these ads, while they do pull at the heartstrings, don’t touch divisive issues. Again, this year advertisers shied away from anything that could be seen as divisive or controversial. It seems advertisers’ sense that consumers don’t want to hear or learn about issues with which they don’t already agree.
Politics Make a Run
For the first time in Super Bowl history two presidential candidates advertised in the Super Bowl. Michael Bloomberg announced early on that he would spend $10 million for an ad in Super Bowl 54. Never to be outdone, President Trump matched the bid. The Trump campaign announced that they would run two 30 second ads during the game.
Bloomberg’s 60-second ad about gun violence, ran right after halftime. The ad is remarkable for its issue orientation on gun safety, an issue as divisive as any. The narrator notes that Mike is not afraid of the gun lobby, “they’re scared of him. And they should be.” The ending slogan, Mike Will Get It Done, refers to Bloomberg’s no nonsense, efficient managerial style.
Trump’s ad highlighting economic growth, with clips of rallies, the military and industrial workers was released ahead of the game and ran just after the game ended. But, in a surprise twist, early in the first quarter, an unannounced ad for Trump appeared – a 30-second spot touting the president’s record on criminal justice reform. It showed clips of Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender who was sentenced to life in prison on cocaine trafficking charges reuniting with her family and thanking the President who commuted her sentence in 2018 (she’d served 21 years) after some personal lobbying by Kim Kardashian. The ad was effective, no doubt designed to appeal to independent and more liberal voters.
Despite advertisers’ general risk aversion and avoidance of issue-related ads this year, both the Trump and Bloomberg campaigns capitalized on the Super Bowl’s 100 million-plus audience and the positive, upbeat environment of the game to deliver their messages and to leverage the huge viewership’s potential voting power.
What’s the Takeaway?
The country is divided. Sharply. Each group in his or her own corner. We are subjected every day to our divisive politics. Note that Super Bowl ad plans were likely developed just ahead of or in the midst of the impeachment investigation. Advertisers looked for positive ways to unify. To sell without distraction. To remain on neutral ground. To provide information. To entertain. Messages were humorous, upbeat and with few exceptions non-threatening and not overly emotional. Commercials overwhelmingly featured celebrities to gain quick attention and to bond with customers. Ads were largely not topical, although notably most of the advertising for automobiles were for electric vehicles – but without any strong call to action on climate change. That underlying message was left implicit.
In the current environment we see that advertisers are trying to engage consumers neutrally and with fun. It’s the least they can do in these difficult times. If you have something to sell, especially between now and the election, stay neutral. Be positive and upbeat. Let consumers have fun with your product or brand. Hire a celebrity to deliver your message if you can afford it, especially one who is relevant to your brand. Amuse and entertain. Unless you want to take a stand on something you believe in, which is fine if you think your consumer agrees with you. But know that you may risk alienating the other half of your customers who disagree with you. Sadly, this is the country we live in right now.