The King of Beers is stepping away from one of its most prominent thrones.
Beverage giant Anheuser-Busch InBev is benching Super Bowl commercials from Budweiser, perhaps its best-known product — the first time in nearly four decades that the brand won’t have a place on the Big Game ad roster. The move follows decisions by both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to sideline Super Bowl ads for their flagship products, and suggests CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl LV will lack some of the event’s most familiar trappings as the world continues to grapple with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Budweiser will give the money it might have spent on running a Super Bowl commercial to the Ad Council, an industry coalition that produces and places public-service announcements, to help raise awareness of the benefits of getting the coronavirus vaccine. “We know the resources that go behind investment in a game-day unit are significant,” says Monica Rustgi, vice president of marketing at Budweiser, in an interview, noting that the brand has enjoyed an in-game presence for 37 years.
It’s not clear that Anheuser-Busch is cutting its usual Super Bowl spend. The company intends to run four minutes’ worth of advertising in Super Bowl LV for Bud Light, Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, Michelob Ultra, and Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer, while running local ads in select markets for Stella Artois and Cutwater Sprits. That’s the same amount of national inventory it purchased last year in Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Anheuser spent an estimated $41 million in last year’s game, according to Kantar and has on average accounted for 10% of total Super Bowl ad revenue in each of the event’s last five broadcasts.
CBS, which has been seeking around $5.5 million for a 30 second spot in its February 7 telecast, has yet to announce a sell-out of its available commercial inventory.
Advertisers in the 2021 game face unique challenges. Most consumers probably won’t be attending big parties with friends and neighbors, and ad executives acknowledge they are recalibrating their pitches for viewers sitting in smaller groups and likely enjoying quieter moments. There is also some thought that demand for products usually spurred by the Super Bowl may be tamped down this year.
“With Super Bowl parties either scaled way down or just cancelled, it probably makes sense to sit this one out at this cost” for certain marketing categories, says Brian Sheehan, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Super Bowl advertisers so far include stalwarts like Toyota and M&Ms and rookies such as Fiverr, DoorDash and Scotts Miracle-Gro. Avocados from Mexico and Hyundai, two other advertisers have have been regular Super Bowl supporters, have also opted not to run commercials this year.
Instead of running a Super Bowl spot, Budweiser is releasing a 90-second ad it intends to run on digital outlets, calling attention to moments during the pandemic when being together matters. The last few moments of the ad, narrated by Rashida Jones, suggest that getting the coronavirus vaccine represents one more way that people can help each other. The spot is created by David, a Miami agency that has worked with Budweiser in recent Super Bowls.
Budweiser has been responsible for some of the Super Bowl’s most memorable pitches. Its iconic Clydesdale horses paid tribute to New York City in a Super Bowl ad in the aftermath of 9/11. Viewers’ hearts melted in 2014 and 2015 when they watched the adventures of a puppy enamored with the stately horses. And Budweiser over the years has given Super Bowl fans phrases like “Wasssup!”; characters like the Budweiser Frogs; and intriguing efforts like the Bud Bowl.
While Schlitz once held forth during an early Super Bowl broadcast, Anheuser-Busch has essentially muscled all its yeasty competitors off the field with an NFL deal that makes it the exclusive national Super Bowl sponsor in its category.
Executives had a Super Bowl spot ready to go late last year, says Rustgi, but decided to pivot. The brand has in 2020 taken ad spending normally allocated to sports and used it to help drive awareness of more pressing issues, says Rustgi, including the need to donate blood to the Red Cross. During an unprecedented year, “we knew we had to do something bigger than beer,” she says, adding: “We realized we needed to lean in a bit more with heart. Maybe some of the other marketing tactics took a little bit of a back seat.”
Through the first ten months of 2020, Anheuser spent $80.2 million to advertise Budweiser in TV sports broadcasts, according to Kantar, compared with $140.5 million in the same period in 2019, representing a drop of approximately 42%.
The executive would not say what the shelved Super Bowl commercial looks like, or whether it focused on the Clydesdale horses. And while some changes made in pivotal moments have a way of becoming permanent, Rustgi says Budweiser intends to return to the event. “Anything is possible, but the plan right now is we are going to be back next year.”