Some Super Bowl commercials will strike a different tone this year due to the pandemic


For advertisers, the Super Bowl typically represents a golden opportunity to have so many eyeballs at the same time and are actually are tuned in to watch the ads. 

Of course, this year is anything but typical. 

Advertisers appearing on the game this Sunday have to manage the right tone amid a pandemic that’s killed over 400,000 in the U.S. Some Super Bowl advertisers will weigh in on the reality of the moment while trying not to be offensive. Many others are forging ahead with lighthearted humor, while some are going a practical route, showing how their technology can help in a stay-at-home world.

“I can’t remember a previous time where we had so much else going on in our country and in the world,” said Derek Rucker, who teaches advertising strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “You have an environment with the pandemic, you have a change in presidency, you have social justice movements. What that means is there are a lot of hot button or trigger issues. You don’t want, as a brand, to say the wrong thing. It’s a little bit more of a challenge this year.” 

A huge chunk of the Super Bowl’s advertisers have already released their ads, and many are likely playing it safer than ever.

“You want to break through the clutter … and get people talking,” said Jim Nail, principal analyst for B2C marketing at Forrester. “But in the past, there have been a lot of instances where those ads have gone over the edge from being edgy to being outright offensive. This year, with everybody’s nerves on edge and polarization of society and people looking for insults that may or may not be intentional, the stakes are really high.” 

Some of the ads will refer to the pandemic in indirect ways.

Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade’s ad weighs in on the reality by referring to 2020 as a “lemon of a year,” as the ad’s subjects are pelted with falling lemons. Anheuser-Busch‘s ad is an emotional ode to the practice of grabbing a beer, with a voiceover reading, “So when we’re back, let’s remember it’s never just about the beer, it’s about saying that simple human truth: We need each other.”

A spot from Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s will suggest that people may be cooped up, but that the great outdoors are calling. A voiceover in that ad reads: “In these trying times we need nature more than ever … These challenges will pass.” 

A recent survey from mobile ad company AdColony reported that 81% of its respondents said they wanted funny Super Bowl ads, while 36% wanted “heartwarming” and 11% wanted political or social ads. 

A few additional brands this year are going that heartwarming route. Toyota will air a 60-second ad titled “Upstream” in the second quarter of Sunday’s game to tell the story of Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. Indeed, the job listing company, will strike a hopeful note for its first ad on the big game, with the company saying it “highlights the emotional journey of job seekers at a time when many people are facing economic distress.” 

A slew of new advertisers to the Super Bowl, like resale e-commerce company Mercari or online used-car company Vroom, will be trying to show how their technology can help in a year like this.

And humor will certainly be a theme. PepsiCo‘s Doritos, General Motors, Procter & Gamble‘s Tide and Amazon Alexa all go this route. M&M’s tapped actor Dan Levy for a humorous spot that shows what the company calls “relatable ‘wow, I really shouldn’t have done that’ scenarios,” like “sorry I called you a Karen” or “sorry for mansplaining.” Meanwhile, Uber Eats tapped Mike Myers and Dana Carvey for a “Wayne’s World” revival during the game to encourage viewers to “party on” and support local restaurants. 

“Most of us are feeling extremely high levels of anxiety,” said Anjali Bal, a marketing professor at Babson College. “When we have that high level of anxiety, it’s kind of like this natural thing to want to like break it with some humor. And I think that it really depends on who the brand is, it’s coming in to do it.” 

Of course, jokes land differently when you’re at home alone instead of out drinking at a party, which many consumers are likely foregoing this year. 

“When we see how people behave in group consumption experiences versus and solo consumption experiences, things are completely different,” she said. 

Many brands are planning larger digital ploys, whether or not they’re also advertising on the Super Bowl. For instance, Planter’s, which isn’t advertising on this year’s game, plans to do social activations around the game.

“I think those that can make themselves relevant across multiple platforms will have the highest likelihood of success for not only memorability, but also in terms of impact in the long term,” Bal said.

You can watch all the Super Bowl ads that have been released so far in CNBC’s roundup, and follow along on our Super Bowl Live Ad Blog on Sunday.

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