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Trends in This Year’s Super Bowl Advertising

Whether you’re a huge football fan or it’s the nachos and wings that are the draw, the cultural impact of the Super Bowl is undeniable. Every year, eyes are on more than just the game. Super Bowl Sunday has been described as the day when it’s okay to openly admit that you enjoy the advertising. After a rough 2020, on so many levels, advertisers in this year’s game were careful to strike the right tone. Let’s take a look at some trends from this year’s “Big Game.”

Shifting Viewing Habits
It’s been a complicated year for both marketing and linear TV. With such a steady rise of new streaming platforms, it sometimes it feels as though there’s a new one announced every week. So it’s not unexpected that the Super Bowl’s linear broadcast earned lower ratings than previous years. An on-demand world seemingly cares less about live broadcasts. Last year’s NBA Finals and other sports telecasts had lower ratings than typical, but the NBA’s ratings this year are already back on the rise.

And since the Super Bowl itself is a “gathering” event — at-home parties and crowded bars are the norm for many viewers — the pandemic likely prevented more casual viewers from tuning in. All this said, the Super Bowl is still expected to be the most-watched program of 2021. Streaming viewership hit a record high, enough to crash CBS All Access’ servers momentarily as the platform had its most sign-ups ever in one day. According to Nielsen, the game was the first in history to crack 1 billion total streaming minutes and recorded an average of 5.7 million viewers per minute. The future of broadcasting may change, but the Super Bowl will continue to demand the highest ad rates on TV, and also remain linear television’s biggest event.

Trends Revealed
When it comes to resonating with viewers, going for funny is still a winning tactic. And celebrity advertising is thriving during the pandemic. The big game had an abundance of big, branded, star-filled spots that stole the show. Timothée Chalamet for VW, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis (and rapper Shaggy) for Cheetos, John Cena for Mountain Dew, Will Ferrell for GM, and Michael B. Jordan stealing the show as the “body” of Amazon’s Alexa. Oat milk company Oatly was this year’s weird new company trying to make a splash with a strange ad that people either loved or hated.

But the major takeaway to the casual viewer was less about ad trends and more about commerce trends. A handful of Super Bowl veterans, like Budweiser and Avocados from Mexico, bowed out, while digital and ecommerce companies debuted their first-ever big spots. Stock trading app Robinhood tried to capitalize on the turbulent GameStop saga, and other “new” companies, like payment company Klarna, food delivery platform UberEats, Mercari, Fiverr, and more. Many DTC and delivery companies had a very profitable 2020 as work and our economy followed existing trends to a more digital landscape, and the Super Bowl told this story.

Diversity in the Advertising
2020 brought renewed attention to the fight for a more diverse and equitable society. Results were mixed in terms of how this played out in Sunday’s ads, but many brands appear to be making real strides. Michelob Ultra, Amazon (the aforementioned Michael B. Jordan spot), Logitech, Squarespace, and Klarna featured Black actors and actresses in lead roles. Robinhood and WeatherTech featured multiple ethnicities and racial backgrounds, and Toyota featured Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long.

Corporations need to demonstrate diversity naturally and rooted in company ethics. State Farm offers a good example. Ad Age summed up the company’s approach to its, first “Big Game” spot: “inclusivity was not something the company was specifically looking to do because it was already part of the brand strategy.” Of course for many brands need to address diversity in all areas of their organizations and strides to be made behind the camera too, as women and people of color are still underrepresented.

Looking Forward
The Super Bowl will always draw people together and eyes toward a screen on a February Sunday, providing a prism for culture and refracting the most important issues of our time into a rainbow of creativity. And while the contest between the teams is central to many viewers, others admit to enjoying the ads as much as the game itself. We can look to those brand stories, whether told in told in 5, 30, 60 or even 120 seconds, for insights on a changing industry.