Super Bowl Advertising in the Post-Pandemic Future: Is It Really Worth It?

The Super Bowl is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most-watched sporting events of the year.

Averaging 100 million viewers, this annual spectacle is not only a big deal for the NFL championship teams and football aficionados, but also for advertisers and marketers looking to reach a large audience. In previous years, companies have fought to secure a 30-second commercial space, justifying their over $5 million spending with the fact that no other event commands the mass viewership the Super Bowl does. Over half of American households with a TV tuned into last year’s championship game, many of whom are not traditional football fans. The Super Bowl is a unique brand-building opportunity because it attracts an unlimited audience who won’t fast-forward through the commercials; rather, the commercials are as much a part of the viewing experience as the game itself.

However, advertising looked quite different in this year’s pandemic championship. Many traditional players in the advertising game decided to sit this Super Bowl out, foregoing their air time for the first time in years. Budweiser’s Clyesdales and Coca-Cola’s Polar Bears have become almost synonymous with the Super Bowl, yet these were among two of the big advertisers who were not present in the matchup between the Chiefs and the Buccaneers.

“The Coca-Cola Company has made the decision to sit this year out of the Big Game,” a company spokesperson said. “This difficult choice was to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times. We’ll be toasting to our fellow brands with an ice-cold Coke from the sidelines.”

For the first time in 37 years, beverage company Anheuser-Busch, parent company of Budweiser, also decided to pull the notorious beer brand from the big game. Instead, they have decided to commit $1 million to a vaccine awareness campaign by the US nonprofit, Ad Council.

“Like everyone else, we are eager to get people back together, reopen restaurants and bars, and be able to gather to cheers with friends and family,” said Budweiser Vice President of Marketing, Monica Rustgi. “To do this, and to bring consumers back into neighborhood bars and restaurants that were hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic, we’re stepping in to support critical awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

While neither company disclosed exactly how much they saved by opting out of Super Bowl advertising, these beverage brands are among the biggest traditional Super Bowl spenders, with Budweiser spending an estimated $470 million since its first championship commercial appearance, and Coca-Cola spending over $200 million. These beverage companies aren’t the only ones to attribute their position on the sideline to the global pandemic. The uncertainties surrounding the 2020 season and whether it would be played to completion certainly played a role in the decision to advertise. Most companies start planning and creating their SuperBowl ad as far in advance as the summer before the game, so the multi-million dollar price tag was a risk that many brands were not willing to take. In a normal year, ad space is filled by November–nearly three months before the big game. However this year, CBS announced it had only just sold out of commercial inventory on January 27–less than two weeks before Super Bowl LV.

Like Coca-Cola and Budweiser, many brands have decided to reshuffle their playbooks and reallocate spending. Many larger brands have chosen to use their financial assets to support COVID-19 relief efforts, and others are simply holding back from expensive ad spending to recover from the enormous financial toll the pandemic has wreaked on businesses across the globe. The decision not to advertise this year was definitely a justified one, and (consequently for TV broadcasters) it also made many companies question whether Super Bowl advertising in the post-pandemic future is even worth it.

This year serves as a test for future broadcasts; if companies find they are still able to meet their promotional and advertising goals without spending big on the Super Bowl, it is likely we will not see them again. The shift to streaming has also made many companies realize the value behind targeted, product ads as opposed to brand-building through an unlimited audience. Spending millions of dollars to advertise to an audience that isn’t entirely your target market may not be worth it for brands who have already achieved name recognition. This may very well open the door for more startups and small businesses to find ad space in the big game, money permitting. We saw several new players emerge this year, including DoorDash, online marketplace Mercari, and online freelance platform Fiverr. The Super Bowl serves as a more attractive advertising option to these companies to build brand awareness and recognition through the big game’s uniquely vast audience reach.

While Super Bowl advertising may have looked very different this year, it may symbolize a shift in marketing strategy that will continue into the post-pandemic future.

Have any questions? Drop them in the comments below!