CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The most notable thing about Anheuser-Busch's Super Bowl advertising lineup this year is what it doesn't include: Clydesdales, "Drinkability" and Bud Light spots from DDB.
With a full five minutes of air time this year, A-B is once again the game's biggest advertiser. But the spots previewed this afternoon for the media featured some surprises.
For one thing, A-B -- now the U.S. unit of Anheuser-Busch InBev -- appears to be moving on from the "Drinkability" platform it adopted for Bud Light in late 2008, opting instead for a new tagline, "Here we go," that is less focused on product attributes and more aligned with the brand's traditional good-times positioning, which held that people drink light beer to have fun, so light-beer commercials ought to be funny.
The "Drinkability" positioning has not been good for Bud Light sales, which declined for the first time in the brand's history last year. (Bud Light sales dropped 6.6% in the fourth quarter, according to Information Resources Inc.)
Keith Levy, the brewer's VP-marketing, described the new ads as an evolution of the "Drinkability" campaign, noting that the last batch of ads in that effort described the "just right" taste of Bud Light, language that's repeated in the new ads. All of the Bud Light ads shoot for laughs. One spoofs the ABC series "Lost," as plane-crash survivors on an island pull both the plane's radio and its fridge from the fuselage, and are faced with a decision over which is more important. Another features an entire house made of Bud Light cans.
Cannonball takes over Bud Light ads
Perhaps just as noteworthy as the content of the ads is noting who didn't make them. Omnicom Group's DDB, Chicago, has been Bud Light's primary agency for most of the brand's history and has done the overwhelming majority of its Super Bowl ads over that period.
Not this year. All five Bud Light spots previewed came courtesy of St. Louis-based Cannonball, and they largely follow the comedic formula that DDB is known for. While the agency has, over time, seen the likes of LatinWorks and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners swipe some of its Super Bowl glory, it's never before been completely shut out of Bud Light light's big-game presence.
That none of its Bud Light work made the cut is, at the very least, a major psychic blow to the agency and, perhaps, a sign of real trouble in one of adland's most enduring and high-profile agency-client relationships.
Consider that last year, three minutes and 30 seconds of A-B's 4 minutes and 30 seconds of Super Bowl ad time was filled with DDB spots; this year, only 90 seconds of its five minutes will be.
DDB's relationship with A-B has been a subject of industry interest ever since A-B was acquired by InBev in 2008. The agency lost a key supporter when A-B Chief Creative Officer Bob Lachky departed earlier this year, and like all A-B InBev shops, it has seen its compensation reduced. But it also picked up global agency-of-record duties on Budweiser this year -- a status that is expected to culminate in a massive, global push behind the World Cup this summer -- and it has played a key role in the high-profile U.S. launches of Bud Light Lime and Bud Light Golden Wheat.
Ads were consumers' choice
Mr. Levy said that DDB remains a "valued player" on A-B's roster, and that the agency will have Bud Light work on the air in the near future, just not during the Super Bowl. Asked why, he cited consumer research that showed the Cannonball ads simply scored better.
"The ads that were chosen are a result of what consumers thought were the best ads," Mr. Levy said. "Consumers chose these."
DDB did handle the game's 90 seconds worth of Budweiser work, but the spots previewed to the media did not include the brand's iconic Clydesdales for the first time since 2001.
It wasn't for lack of trying. A-B hired legendary commercial director Joe Pytka for a Clydesdale shoot in November, but the ads that came out of it didn't make the cut. Clydesdale spots generally speak to a broader audience than A-B's typical slapstick fare and often score the best in popularity contents such as USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter. A-B came in second in that ranking last year, breaking a 10-year streak of victories.
As it has in recent years, A-B is also giving some ad time to smaller brands -- and to some of its smaller agencies. Michelob Ultra gets a 30-second spot starring cyclist Lance Armstrong, from Chicago-based agency Palm & Havas, while Budweiser Select 55 gets a straightforward 15-second spot from Momentum, St. Louis, touting the brand as the lightest beer in the world.
High Life spoofs A-B BuyAnother recent Super Bowl tradition that is continuing this year is A-B rival Miller High Life's use of spot buys to mock unnamed bigger Super Bowl spenders.
Last year, High Life scored a major PR coup -- and a sales boost-- by airing one-second ads intended to mock the pricey Super Bowl spots in the blue-collar beer's unique voice. The effort got additional media attention after NBC urged some affiliates not to run the ads because they disparaged other advertisers.
This year, it's attempting a similar score by featuring actual small businesses, such as baseball-card shops and barber shops, in High Life spots during the game on local affiliates.
In a teaser ad announcing the move, the High Life brand's beer-truck-driving mascot observed that "Every year, those big muckety-muck companies prance out those fancy-pants commercials," ridiculing the ads as "dancing monkeys and talking babies."