Some companies are sitting out the annual advertising spectacle following a year of social, economic and political crises.
Published: 2021-02-04 11:11 am
Super Bowl 2021 ads: Here are the leaked commercials

Super Bowl advertising has always been a high-stakes activity, with brands spending millions for 30 seconds of airtime alone to trot out their messages in front of more than 100 million viewers. But in 2021, the stakes are even higher after a bruising year that included a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial justice demonstrations and an attack on the Capitol Building. 

Some long-time advertisers are opting out of the this year's Super Bowl LV, including veteran players like Coke and Pepsi. Brand experts note that advertisers who will appear in the game may need to walk a fine line with their messaging, with Northwestern University business professor Derek Rucker describing the situation akin to "icebergs in the water."

"Going to the Super Bowl means you are speaking to an audience of 100 million or more — you have to make sure you don't convey an unintended message, that you don't hit an iceberg along the way," he said. "There is some trepidation on the side of advertisers — I think they are right to be cautious."

A memorable Super Bowl ad can be worth far more than the investment in airtime, which this year stands at $5.5 million for a 30-second spot. Advertisers with a memorable commercial can stand out from the crowd, helping to win over customers and build goodwill — such as with Apple's famous "1984" ad that helped it stand out in the early personal computer wars. 

But a poorly executed Super Bowl commercial can wreak havoc on a company, such as was the case with the Just for Feet ad in 1999 that depicted White hunters tracking a barefoot Kenyan runner, drugging him and forcing shoes on his feet. 

"What you saw and what the brand intended are two different things," Rucker said of Super Bowl ads that misfire. "As a brand you have to think about the big picture and how consumers might respond to it."

CBS (the parent company of CBS Interactive and CBS MoneyWatch) is airing the game on Sunday, February 7, at 6:30 p.m. EST. The network late last month said it is "virtually sold out" of ad inventory, with some newcomers buying ad space as regulars such as Coke sit out. 

Chipotle, DoorDash

Despite the risks, the championship game remains a good opportunity for companies to grab viewers' attention, noted Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy. She pointed to Chipotle, which is running its first Super Bowl ad this year. 

"They have had a heck of a year in a positive way," Gabor noted. "They were moving toward a model that was toward convenience and had a Chipotle app well before the pandemic — they were well positioned for the changing world."

The ad's message focuses on environmentally friendly agriculture, tying into Chipotle's marketing efforts about sourcing food in responsible ways — and Gabor said that is likely to be a theme that scores with many consumers, given increasing concerns about climate change and the environment. 

Chipotle | Can a Burrito Change the World? by Chipotle Mexican Grill on YouTube

Another newcomer to the Super Bowl this year is DoorDash, which also saw a lift to its business this year amid the pandemic. With restaurants limiting or sometimes shutting indoor dining and consumers concerned about eating out because of the risk of virus exposure, millions more consumers turned to delivery apps such as DoorDash to order food. 

While DoorDash hasn't pre-released the Super Bowl ad, it's provided sneak peeks through teasers that feature Sesame Street characters like Cookie Monster (who gobbles cookies ordered from DoorDash, naturally) and Super Grover. The teasers seem to provide a nod to the pandemic — such as Super Grover ordering paper towels — and are aimed at highlighting "local heroes" such as small businesses and delivery workers. 

DoorDash said it wanted to build on its growing brand awareness by taking out a spot in the Super Bowl, and also tie the ad to its five-year $200 million pledge to support merchants, its workers and local communities. The company said it's also donating $1 for every order starting on Super Bowl Sunday to Sesame Workshop, with donations topping out at $1 million.

"The essence of the spot is about optimism — giving something back to our communities in hopes of brightening their days and building groundswell for our neighborhoods," while also aiding Sesame Workshop, David Bornoff, head of consumer marketing at DoorDash, told CBS MoneyWatch.


"DoorDash is a great example of a newcomer who makes a lot of sense to be in the Super Bowl —they've had a lot of growth" this past year, Rucker noted. 

The stock-trading app Robinhood, meanwhile, is also running its first Super Bowl ad, coming on the heels of a turbulent couple of weeks when it restricted trading in GameStop and other stocks after some of its users bid up the stock to stratospheric heights, followed by a plunge in value

We are all investors | Robinhood :30 by Robinhood on YouTube

Many customers were upset with Robinhood for restricting their ability to trade in the stocks. The Super Bowl ad, with the message "We are all investors," could be a way for Robinhood to rebuild its image following a backlash that includes calls for a Congressional investigation into the so-called "meme stock" mania now infamously tied to Robinhood. 

Too soon?

Bud Light is taking a more direct approach toward acknowledging the pandemic, with its ad for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade using the metaphor of lemons for the past year's crisis. The new brand's age-old message: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. 

The ad depicts people at weddings, parties and other events when lemons begin raining from the sky — in cases, physically hurting people and causing damage to buildings and cars. It's supposed to be a humorous metaphor for 2020, but it's also taking a risk on an approach that might not strike some viewers as hilarious exactly amid a deadly pandemic. 

Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade - Super Bowl LV - Last Year’s Lemons by Bud Light on YouTube

"Some goofy 18-to-24-year-old men are going to find that ridiculous and laugh about it," Gabor predicted. "As a 52-year-old woman, I didn't feel it was appealing at all."

Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, is aiming for an emotional ad that reminds people of the casual moments of commiseration and companionship that have all but disappeared in the pandemic — drinking a beer with co-workers, reminiscing with friends at quiet moments and sharing a joke.

Let's Grab a Beer | Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl LV Commercial | :90 by Anheuser-Busch on YouTube

"The insight comes straight out of real life as so many people are just longing to be together with their friends and family again," said Marcel Marcondes, CMO, Anheuser-Busch, said in a statement.

"The 'safe' approach"

Other advertisers are taking a more traditional route of providing humorous spots that don't refer to the pandemic, the environment or any other crisis — other than dirty laundry and swiped snack foods, that is. 

"Whenever you have something going on in the world, you'll often see the 'safe' approach," Rucker noted. "The advertisers say, 'We'll do something funny that's evergreen — unless we really miss something, no one is going to hate us.'"

Take Cheetos. Its Super Bowl LV spot features actor Ashton Kutcher asking his wife, actor Mila Kunis, if she's seen his bag of Cheetos. Despite her orange-tinged fingers and face, she denies she's the thief, while Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" provides the soundtrack.

Cheetos | It Wasn’t Me SUPER BOWL LV OFFICIAL VIDEO by Cheetos on YouTube

Another more traditional ad comes from Tide, with a mom telling her teenage son to wash his "Jason Alexander hoodie," which is embossed with actor Jason Alexander's face. The teen insists the hoodie is clean, but a series of flashbacks, featuring the sweatshirt's many unhappy facial expressions, show that it's far from spotless.

Tide | The Jason Alexander Hoodie | Super Bowl 55 Commercial by Tide on YouTube

Pringles is another brand aiming for tried-and-true humor. Called "Space Return," the spot features people so wrapped up in stacking their Pringles chips that mission control misses out on two astronauts' return to Earth.

Pringles | 2021 Flavor Stacking Space Return Ad (Official) by Pringles U.S. on YouTube

"Most brands are trying to play it a little bit light and upbeat without being polarizing or divisive," Gabor said.

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