Advertisers in next year’s Super Bowl are hoping they will get to party like it’s pre-pandemic 2020.
Earlier this year, Fox Corporation took in about $600 million in advertising revenue for its broadcast of Super Bowl LIV and pre- and post-game coverage, Lachlan Murdoch, the company’s executive chairman, said earlier this year. The game itself, aired on the Fox broadcast network, generated around $435 million, a record haul, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. With a booming economy as a backdrop, Fox was able to sell out all of its regular inventory for the game by November of 2019 — the first time in half a decade that the network airing the game hasn’t had to go down to the wire to accomplish the feat.
Now CBS, which is scheduled to air Super Bowl LV on February 7 of 2021, faces a radically different situation. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the network’s executives expect their sales process to take longer than Fox’s, according to two people familiar with the matter, and note that one factor giving potential sponsors pause is figuring out what kind of tone to strike with audiences next year.
Madison Avenue agrees. “I think the only thing different this year is that everything is different this year,” says John Patroulis, the worldwide chief creative officer of Grey, a WPP agency that has created Super Bowl ads for the NFL, E-Trade and others.
In a typical Super Bowl cycle, most advertisers would have committed to the game in late summer, giving their ad agencies time to plan a creative concept, devise special effects, and possibly hire celebrities or license popular music for ads. Agency executives say coronavirus conditions have complicated the logistics of production, and wonder if some advertisers may come in to the Super Bowl at the last minute, requiring a whirlwind of activity to get them ready.
More worrisome, perhaps: The pandemic will likely squelch many Super Bowl parties, forcing advertisers to recalibrate their efforts to attract consumers watching in quieter environments. “A lot of people won’t feel safe enough to get together, and that dynamic changes things,” says Eric Baldwin, executive creative director at the Portland office of Wieden + Kennedy, which has produced Super Bowl ads for Coca-Cola and others. “Typically, we look at the idea of oh, things are going to be bombastic, people are going to be loud and drinking and eating food, and they are not going to be paying attention, so we really have to craft a spot to deal with that environment. These are our traditional go-to things that we have always leaned on when we make Super Bowl spots,” he notes, adding: “I feel they are a bit out the window.”
And then there are the challenges of attracting a worried consumer. Many Americans have lost their jobs and the nation remains polarized following the 2020 presidential election, a condition that can turn even the most well-meaning of ad messages into an unpopular Twitter meme. “You wouldn’t think soda and snacks are in any way politicized,” says Joy Lu, a professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “Coming off the election, these surprises are going to happen.”
There will be a Super Bowl — or so the NFL has said. Some sponsors are already on board. PepsiCo will once again sponsor the halftime show. Other recent regulars are keeping their plans to themselves. Anheuser-Busch InBev, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble declined to comment on any potential Super Bowl plans.
And yet, the NFL season is growing more chaotic. Recent coronavirus complications delayed the league’s annual Thanksgiving night game, forced the Denver Broncos to use a rookie quarterback, depleted the Baltimore Ravens’ roster, and pushed the San Francisco 49ers to find new digs. CBS continues to work with the NFL when it comes to the possible rescheduling of games, according to the two people familiar with the sales process, and has contingency plans in place in the event the Big Game has to change dates.
CBS has made progress in selling what are usually around 60 to 70 Super Bowl ad berths (more than 42 minutes worth of ads in this year’s game, according to Kantar). The network has moved “a significant number of units” and all of the game’s “A slots,” or first commercials to air in a specific break, have been sold, according to one person familiar with sales. There is still game inventory available, but supply has tightened, another person says. CBS has been seeking around $5.5 million for a 30-second spot and $300,000 for ads that run in digital streams of the event.
Those costs may give some advertisers reason for pause. Retailers, travel companies and movie studios are among the sectors that have been hit hard by the pandemic, and the Super Bowl price — up from an average of $2.7 million in 2008 — is not to be taken lightly. “Some companies that are the biggest Super Bowl advertisers have seen their markets just collapse,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Advertisers have not flocked to the Super Bowl as quickly as they did in cycles past. Ever since the NFL introduced “Thursday Night Football” to its programming mix, some marketers have opted to buy more ad time in regular-season games, which are cheaper to orchestrate than a single Super Bowl appearance.
After deciding how much to spend, a Super Bowl sponsor must figure out just what to say. In recent years, some game sponsors have tilted serious rather than silly. Coca-Cola, for example, has often burnished a message of inclusivity. The Fox broadcast included campaign spots from President Donald Trump and one-time challenger Michael Bloomberg. In 2017, 84 Lumber, a freshman advertiser, ran an ad depicting a Spanish-speaking mother and daughter on a harrowing journey, all as the election of President Trump amplified debate about immigration.
Some advertising observers are calling for fun this year. “This is our sacred moment of entertainment,” says Vann Graves, executive director at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, a division devoted to the study of advertising, after months spent sequestered at home while the world has been roiled by the pandemic, the 2020 election, an economic downturn and moments of social injustice. The game is typically watched by millions all at once and is “built for this world where we are quarantined and stuck at home,” he adds. People will need “a little frat humor, something goofy, something silly, something funny — we all need it. No one has had a break.”
Yet agency executives worry bedrock elements of a Super Bowl ad may be harder to procure. “Will celebrities want to participate?” asks Barney Goldberg, executive creative director at Innocean, an agency that works with Hyundai and has made several Super Bowl spots for the automaker. Delays in many recent movie releases could spur some actors to hold off on making any kind of promotional appearances, he suggests, until their projects are closer to seeing the light of day. He advises against “a script that lives or dies on one celebrity, the kind where if we don’t get this person, the script will not work.” Instead, “having roles that are more archetypal and in which you can drop different people into — that would probably be a useful thing right now.”
If advertisers can put aside their concerns about money, business and a strange new world, maybe there will be room for what the Super Bowl usually brings: surprise, laughs and delight. “I would steer a client away from just being somber,” says Graves, the advertising professor, “I feel like it would be salt in the wound.”