The beverage giant, one of the biggest and most reliable sponsors of the annual football extravaganza, is benching traditional Super Bowl ads for its flagship soda. Instead, says Todd Kaplan, Pepsi’s vice president of marketing, “we are going to double down on our existing 12 minutes in the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show in the middle of the Super Bowl, and we are going to build it out like we have never built it out before.”
The halftime show will star The Weeknd, and Pepsi on Saturday will launch a new campaign to call attention to the performance – the first time the musician at the center of the event has taken part in a Pepsi ad campaign in advance of the effort. CBS is scheduled to telecast Super Bowl LV on February 7.
Pepsi’s decision will suspend a gridiron tradition that has brought consumers glitzy spots featuring Britney Spears and Cindy Crawford, as well as humorous pot-shots at rival Coca-Cola (Coke, another regular sponsor of the game, declined to offer comment about any potential Super Bowl plans). The maneuver reflects Madison Avenue’s growing interest in creating content of its own, rather than commercials that interrupt it.
The move is also likely to spur questions about the economic underpinnings of the Super Bowl during a time of economic flux. The coronavirus has forced many advertisers to cut their budgets and reallocate spending. Pepsi has in the past tamped down Super Bowl activity during tough times. In 2010, as the nation worked its way back from a severe recession, Pepsi decided not to run ads for any of its beverages, ending a streak of 23 years of hyping the drinks during the Big Game.
CBS, which is seeking around $5.5 million for Super Bowl TV advertising packages, has yet to declare a sell-out of its in-game commercial inventory. Last year’s game generated an estimated $435 million in ad spending, according to Kantar – a new record. Pepsi’s Kaplan says the company’s decision in 2021 was not forced by a desire to cut spending.
Some advertisers that might normally flock to the Super Bowl may not be able to take part this year, says Jeff Gagne, senior vice president of strategic investments at media buyer Havas Media, due to the way the pandemic has affected business. But the game remains a top media attraction, he adds, and may be even more of one at a time when many consumers can’t gather in large groups and in an era when marketers have to work harder to find large audiences. “By next week, CBS is going to have a pretty clear vision of what their path is to close the game out,” he says.
Other advertisers have started to devise their own pieces of content, hopeful that consumers won’t try to avoid it in an age when streaming-video hubs let them do exactly that when it comes to traditional commercials. Last month, Yum Brands’ KFC worked with A+E Networks’ Lifetime cable network to create a 15-minute program that featured actor Mario Lopez as a dramatic version of the fried-chicken chain’s familiar mascot, Col. Harland Sanders. Anheuser-Busch InBev on New Year’s Eve live-streamed a concert headlined by Post Malone in a bid to boost its Bud Light Seltzer. NBC in November aired a one-hour special co-produced by L’Oreal that celebrated female philanthropists.
“If you want to connect with consumers, they need to be interested in what you are talking about,” says Kaplan. Creating new kinds of interesting content “is something absolutely that is an area as a brand we are going to continue to get into and explore.”
There are have already been signs of parent company PepsiCo’s burgeoning interest in this area. The company has unveiled a partnership with Fox Corp.’s Fox broadcast network to create a new game program, “Cherries Wild.” Last month, it launched a hip-hop talent competition on the Triller mobile app. And in November, the company managed to place a bottle of its Mountain Dew into the AMC series, “The Walking Dead: The World Beyond,” even though that horror franchise has in the past been sparing about its use of product placement.
In Pepsi’s view, the company isn’t getting all the value it could out of its halftime show. The soda giant took over sponsorship of the event in 2012 from tire maker Bridgestone, and brought a roster of musicians to the showcase like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga who appealed to younger consumers. Citing data, Kaplan says the spectacle often generates some of the most-watched moments in the Super Bowl broadcast and drives Pepsi’s share of voice on social media.
All the advertisers in the Super Bowl “are talking and fighting for 30 seconds” of attention, says Kaplan, while the halftime event commands far more attention. “We want to focus our efforts on making that a critical moment for the brand.”
Mountain Dew is still expected to run a Super Bowl ad. Another PepsiCo division that usually buys ads in the game, Frito-Lay, has yet to unveil its plans. PepsiCo spent $31 million on three minutes’ worth of advertising in Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV in 2020, according to data from Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.
Rather than spending time fretting over the details of new Super Bowl commercials, Pepsi will instead try to whip up fan interest in the halftime concert. The company is launching a digital portal for fans, PepsiHalftime.com, that will be updated with content about the artist and the show. Special QR codes on limited-edition Pepsi bottles and cans will help fans access the site.
Pepsi believes Super Bowl viewers will appreciate the concert more than they might in less frenetic times, says Kaplan, given the fact that the coronavirus has scuttled live musical performances across the nation. “There is a desire for a bit of escapism and surface-level entertainment, not being constantly reminded” of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, he says. “We think that’s the role that sports and music play for us, providing that sense of normalcy.”