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Is the Super Bowl still super?

*This article was originally published in shots, a source of news, insight and inspiration for the global creative community, and part of the Extreme Reach family.

With major brands kicking the Super Bowl out of bounds, and viewing parties not up to full strength, we speak to leading voices in the agency and production world to see if the US ad event of the year can still score a touchdown in the age of Covid.

What do you think the advertising element of the Super Bowl is going to look like this year?

Ian Kovalik, Chief Creative Officer at Mekanism: Throughout 2020, given all its woes, I’ve been anticipating that this Super Bowl – of all Super Bowls – will be the most unexpected in terms of advertising in years. Think of it as the year of the advertising audible.

Just as a Quarterback changes a play at the last second by calling an ‘audible’, advertisers have been forced to interpret a variety of unexpected events in order to make the call: spend the $5 MM plus to participate, or hold. It’s an interesting dilemma. A wager that could result in a massive windfall of robust 2021 consumer attention, or an ineffective spend of 5 million dollars.

Let’s also not forget that most of the ads we’ll be watching were made during one of the most unpredictable production seasons pretty much ever. The pandemic has made production expensive and time-consuming. If commercial productions are the metaphorical ‘plays’ and advertisers are the Quarterbacks calling them – they’ve been operating for most of the year under a pandemic blitz with protests coming at them from both sides, Linebackers jockeying for the Inauguration, and a mob storming the Capitol right through the A gap.

That’s why 2020 was a year of audibles resulting in an advertising mix that’s surprising, unexpected, head-scratching, and even wonderful.

Julia Neumann, Executive Creative Director at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY: I think the ads this year – more so than in the history of Super Bowl advertising – will be driven by the idea of entertainment first. Humor? Yes please. Have we ever needed serious comedic relief more than we do now?

On a more strategic note, I think a lot of brands will focus more on integrated marketing campaigns. Social components will also be more prominent as it’s one playground we’re able to play in without actually being together.

Above [clockwise from top left]: Lyle Yetman, Julia Neumann, Uri Schutzer and David Angelo.

Kelly Bayett, Founder & Creative Director at Barking Owl: I think it’s going to be a lot of people and creatives doing the best they can. COVID threw so many wrenches into production so it’s been really interesting to see it all come together in spite of every challenge.

Everyone had to work so diligently to make something great.

Uri Schutzer, Director at The-Artery: Due to the events of 2020, I assumed that the general tone of the commercials for Super Bowl LV would take an emotional route with narratives about unity and healing. After checking out some of the pieces that were released early — like Amazon, Bud Light, and Doritos — I was actually happy to find out that brands are still trying to have fun and entertain us through creative, star-studded productions.

David Angelo, Founder and creative chairman at David&Goliath: In regards to Super Bowl watch parties, the limited seating at Raymond James Stadium coupled with the constraints on large gatherings, will definitely minimize the typical energy of the big game and potentially impact viewer’s experience and excitement levels. This could have an impact on viewership overall.

Lyle Yetman, Group Creative Director at McKinney: I don’t believe it’s going to look all that different. Maybe slightly, but we’re still going to have celebrities, big production value and lots of humor. I think that’s what the audience is expecting and what they’ll get.

Vikkal Parikh, Founder at Ataboy: The Super Bowl offers a very valuable platform for brands to flex their creative muscles and have their voices heard. It’s going to be no different this year. Advertisers are gearing up for this major event in one way, shape, or form.

With many ‘legacy’ brands choosing not to feature, what opportunities do you think this offers to others?

Tanya LeSieur, Head of Production/Associate Partner, MUH-TAY-ZIK / HOF-FERI actually find it quite fascinating that legacy brands are sitting this one out. Is it fear of not saying the right thing? (i.e. tone of voice, being real, afraid of being preachy or sad-vertising?) Is it the perception of how money is being spent? Could $5.6M be better spent?

Given that the Super Bowl is easily one of the most viewed live sporting events in the world, there are still eyeballs watching. It’s an opportunity for a moment to say something or make people feel good. The caution for first time or other brands not normally featured is to use your time wisely. Don’t default to marketing speak. This is a moment for you to shine in WHATEVER you want to say to consumers.

David Angelo: It certainly has opened the door for new brands, those who are appearing in the Super Bowl for the first time, to take advantage of the largest stage to amplify their message and their purpose. However, it can be risky if they don’t take into consideration what the audience may need and want to hear during these very singular times. If it’s too funny will they be perceived as insensitive? If it’s too emotional, will they turn people off?

Julia Neumann: It opens up the opportunity for other brands to make their mark. It’s like playing a game within the game. I hope we get to see some groundbreaking creative that sets the bar high for the years to come. And I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised by bravery, wit and humor. Brands new to the Super Bowl have the possibility to take more of a share of the conversation. Unsurprisingly, some brands who’ve seen an influx of business due to the pandemic are joining in.

Kelly Bayett: This really gives businesses who have thrived during the pandemic a chance to shine. The first-timers are the most fun to watch because it’s really an incredibly exciting opportunity. It’ll be great seeing who it will be and how they are going to stand out. The Super Bowl is the one time where people are REALLY watching the ads. There’s more pressure but so much more opportunity to connect.

Ian Kovalik: As difficult as the last year has been for advertisers, those who decided to go for it will most likely win big in the Super Bowl. The brands who could win the biggest for their business are the ones who have the most to gain for the current timing. Triller, for example, will attempt the big play to knock out Tiktok, who it seems, is no longer banned from the US. Fiverr will capitalize on the boom of pandemic freelancers, and Miracle-Gro will help quarantining gardeners get ready for Spring. So we’ll see first-time players. We’ll see inventive uses of the buy. And we may even see some last-minute entries as leftover inventory entices even more distant long-shot marketers to jump into the ring.

Timing, in this regard, is most certainly everything. I’ve had a working theory that this Super Bowl could well be one of the most widely viewed. It’s been such a strange NFL year, yet the touch-and-go NFL viewership numbers seemed to have been surmounted with Championship Weekend. Both games had more viewers than the previous year, and the Quarterback match-up of Mahomes vs. Brady ought to draw in a larger crowd than was previously expected, given the NFL viewership decline throughout 2020. True, there will be fewer gatherings and parties, but the captive audience provided by nationwide quarantines can’t be denied.

Uri Schutzer: There are many surging virtual products/services, such as Mercari (whose spot I directed), Fiverr, and Vroom, that didn’t have the advertising experience, need, or resources to participate at the scale of the Super Bowl in the past. Now, the absence of certain legacy brands has offered an interesting opportunity for these first-timers to get their names as well as company values and personalities out there. As a commercial director and interactive artist, I’m most excited about this year’s potential for storytelling and technical risks.

What tone is right for times like these?

Tanya LeSieur: We are living in incredibly complex times. You’re going to see many themes and tones and they are all valid. People are simultaneously processing a health crisis, systemic racism, raging politics, a government under siege earlier this month, an unstable transition of power and uncertainty of when things will be more normalized. I say that gives brands permission to be more real, take chances. We need to laugh. We need to be challenged. I hope that we see quality work that makes us feel. Right now having a shared moment in a pretty messed up world is what we need to feel like ourselves again.

Lyle Yetman: I think people are fully aware of the times we’re living through and they don’t want to be constantly reminded of it. We’re all looking for an escape. We’re all looking for a shred of normalcy. I think the tone that will resonate with people this year will be very similar to the tone in the last, honestly.

Ian Kovalik: Tone is as much an audible call as anything else. Given the rollercoaster of daily news even now, I’m sure more than a few advertisers are looking at the monitor in the edit suite wishing they could make a different call for Sunday. But Sunday is upon us, and many of the decisions made during the circumstances of last year are what will be reflected throughout the game this year. I imagine there are three major themes to expect: modest empathy, absolute escapism, and budding optimism.

Budding optimism is the route that is probably the most debatable, but could be a valid way to go if done right. People were exhausted, many enduring real hardships and tragedies of their own, many even now. But 2021 has brought a sense of newness. A new year, a new administration, more news on the vaccine rollout, and many other glimmers of hope. One colleague remarked that this year could even be like the end of World War II once the vaccinations reach a tipping point of distribution and adoption. Should the advertiser see the opening on the field – and choose to impart a sense of hope – that could actually be the right call to make.

Above [clockwise from top left]: Lyle Yetman, Julia Neumann, Uri Schutzer and David Angelo.


Vikkal Parikh: Because we’re definitely now more sensitive and aware of things we see and hear, optimism and innovation are the two words that come to mind when thinking of the current times. Under our new leadership, I’m personally feeling upbeat and positive. There’s a thin line that advertisers have to walk when projecting a message and as long as they’re not outright disrespectful and tone-deaf, audiences are looking for humor and entertainment.

Julia Neumann: Historically speaking the Super Bowl has always been the platform to entertain people and I have a feeling that’s where a lot of this year’s ads will go. Consumers generally don’t like or need a mirror held up to their reality. After a year of political and social unrest as well as the pandemic we all need to be entertained and deserve a good laugh. And that’s our duty as advertisers.

David Angelo: Taking everything into consideration – all that we’ve been through collectively as a nation, they must stay true to who they are as a brand and what they stand for. That authenticity has to be felt, first. Then, as far as tone, create from that place of truth and find a way to honor where we’ve been, and are, as a nation and lean into hope, empathy, and purpose.

Kelly Bayett: Our lives have changed drastically since the last Super Bowl and we don’t want to be reminded of the fact that things are hard. We are not with our friends. People are dying. Let’s just disappear in a fun game, watch some ridiculous ads and shove 7-layer dip in our faces because we’re alone.

Honestly, why not make the most of that, too?