2020 was not a happy year.
A global pandemic permanently altered life as we know it and caused an unprecedented unemployment crisis. The U.S. faced a national reckoning over social injustice and the most unstable presidential election in our history, resulting in an attack on the Capitol.
Enter the Super Bowl, where brands typically take the stage with their boldest and most daring — and sometimes even outlandish — campaigns.
Brands have bought coveted ad space in the big game for more than 40 years to reach its reliably huge audience. But this year, Super Bowl mainstays like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Budweiser are opting out of the big game in a sign of the changing times.
But, how do you reach an audience that’s grown weary from the events of 2020?
Humor still dominates
While it makes sense for some brands to recognize the hardships of the past year, others are betting that viewers just want some comic relief.
“We're turning the corner [of the pandemic] and you're gonna see a lot of humor,” said Beth Avellini, executive creative director of WPP/Wunderman Thompson. “There has to be some purpose behind what you're saying. But, this country needs a laugh. It's been a year.”
For its client Hellmann’s, Wunderman Thompson took the humor route with a spot starring comedian Amy Schumer that encourages people to eliminate food waste one refrigerator at a time. The Super Bowl was the right place for the mayo brand to get a big message across as people shifted to eating at home during the pandemic, Avellini said.
“Hellmann’s wanted to make a splash because we've all been at home, making our own meals, and family meals have been a big deal,” Avellini said.
Mtn Dew also created a visually striking and humorous spot starring John Cena promoting its newest flavor: Major Melon.
Many brands simply want to avoid the criticism they faced at the outset of the pandemic when they all ran ads with the same “we’re all in this together” message.
“I’d like to think we’ve learned from a year of ‘sadvertising’ or zoom call advertising,” said Julia Neumann, executive creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY.
Empowering messages strike a chord
Still, for some brands, acknowledging the events of the past year, or taking a more serious tone, makes sense.
Indeed, for example, acknowledges the massive job losses in the U.S. during the pandemic, and highlights ways the platform can help. Liqueur brand Cointreau and beer brand Guinness acknowledge restaurant closings.
But inspiring Super Bowl ads aren’t just a pandemic phenomenon, according to iSpot TV.
iSpot tracked empowering ads using Ace Metric’s Empower score, which measures positive cultural perception and indicates when viewers find an ad encouraging, inspiring or motivating. In 2010, just 2% of Super Bowl ads scored on Empower, but in the last three Super Bowls, between 24% and 25% of ads scored on the rating system.
Still, taking a more serious angle can be risky, said iSpot analyst Peter Daboll.
“It can really land flat,” he said. “It can come across as preachy or disingenuous.”
Go big or go home
The pandemic has had a major impact on how brands produced their Super Bowl ads this year, as COVID-19 safety protocols made filming a daunting task.
“From what I've seen, people have moved mountains to be able to go out and shoot this work for the Super Bowl,” Avellini said. “You're gonna see some big productions.”
Some brands may even let the realities of the pandemic show through in their creative to seem more relatable to viewers, according to Terence Scroope, VP, of insights and solutions at Unruly.
"A lot of brands are going to try to reflect the lifestyles that we've all been experiencing today,” he said. “They ensure that they rocket up the level of relatability. You'll probably see some references to video conferencing, which is our new normal in terms of social interaction.”
The newbies shine
Regardless of what tone they take, brands with pandemic-friendly offerings, such as Squarespace, Vroom, DoorDash and Mercari, will shine on this year’s Super Bowl stage.
“Disruptor brands are designed to capitalize upon this moment,” Scroope said.
As people pivoted to shopping online during the pandemic, it created space for new brands to seize on the Super Bowl’s branding buzz to tout their pandemic-friendly products and services.
“It’s a smart move to address the elephant in the room, in terms of, we have different needs now than we did even just one year ago,” Scroope said.