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Kobe Bryant’s Death Spurs Planters to Tread Lightly on Super Bowl Ad Field

The outpouring of grief around Kobe Bryant’s death this weekend may be powerful enough to affect advertising plans around the Super Bowl.

Kraft Heinz, the large consumer packaged goods company, said Monday it would tamp down an edgy Big Game campaign built around its Planters nuts. In teaser commercials that debuted last week, Mr. Peanut, the beloved and monocled spokes-nut for Planters, was believed to be killed off in a bid to gain attention for an ad slated to run in this Sunday’s Super Bowl. In the vignette, the anthropomorphic legume falls to his death to save actors Matt Walsh and Wesley Snipes. Fox will broadcast the game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Bryant tragedy has made the advertiser cautious. “Planters has paused all campaign activities, including paid media, and will evaluate next steps through a lens of sensitivity to those impacted by this tragedy,” the company said in a statement. Kraft Heinz intends to pull back the paid advertising it had scheduled over the next few days on places like YouTube and Twitter, and potentially on TV. No change has been made at present to the company’s plans for Super Bowl Sunday, where it is expected to run a commercial centered around Mr. Peanut’s funeral.

The social-media outpouring around the conceit had been fulsome. The teaser spot has generated more than 6.4 million views on YouTube since it was posted there.

The maneuver could certainly be seen as yet one more publicity stunt in a series that typically surface in the days before the Super Bowl. Planters raised eyebrows by staging the well-dressed nut’s demise, and nodding to Kobe Bryant’s death this week would certainly attach the commercial to a topic about which everyone is talking. At the same time, the move suggests Planters seems keenly aware of the vicissitudes of sentiment on social media, where a change in feeling or the perception of offense can turn the tide against a topic that was previously gaining traction.

Planters isn’t the first big advertiser to condone violence to a well-loved marketing figure. In 2019, Anheuser-Busch InBev granted HBO permission to have a character from “Game of Thronesmaim and murder its Bud Knight, an ad mascot of more recent vintage. The scene proved shocking – and not only because of the dark tones it sounded during a broadcast that lures TV’s widest annual audience. Here was one of the nation’s best-known advertisers allowing a distinctive trademark to be defaced in order to link its beverages to the much-anticipated final season of the series.

Planters’ gambit puts a spotlight on marketers’ pre-game tactics. Since Volkswagen used YouTube to unveil a charming Super Bowl spot in 2011 in which a young boy dressed as Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” from Star Wars to start a Passat, more advertisers have turned to social-media to generate publicity for Super Bowl ads well before Game Day kickoff.

That dynamic has in turn crowded the media field in the weeks before the event – leading to more aggressive tactics. Last year, Skittles, the confection made by Mars Inc., staged a half-hour musical in New York’s Town Hall theater, complete with original songs and actor Michael C. Hall. The idea was to generate conversation ahead of game time, and announcement of the odd spectacle did that for days ahead of the Super Bowl LIII broadcast.

Planters appeared in the 2019 Super Bowl, the fist time it had done so in 11 years. The company gained notice with a commercial featuring Mr. Peanut racing through streets in a Nut-mobile and encountering Charlie Sheen and Alex Rodriguez along the way. The ad agency that crafted the spot, VaynerMedia, is the same one behind the nut-vertiser’s 2020 concept.

 

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