How to plan ads for an uncertain Super Bowl: just assume it’s happening
“Let’s assume it’s happening.” That’s been the motto for advertisers looking to buy sports programming in the COVID era and is the current game plan for those planning to air commercials in the pinnacle of all live TV events—the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl LV is slated to air Feb. 7 on CBS, but as has been the case for all live events since the coronavirus outbreak, the fate of the Big Game will likely remain a question mark until the league proves it can get through the majority of the season without a major disruption. While there are still more than five months until the game, which is supposed to take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., planning Super Bowl ads often starts just days and weeks after the prior game ends.
Aside from the months it takes to shoot 30 or 60 seconds of highly produced, celebrity-fueled creative, Super Bowl campaigns also require intense strategizing involving social media components, trailers for the spots and marketing around the big reveal of the ad.
This means that long before we know whether the Super Bowl will be able to take place, marketers who are considering plopping down about $5.5 million for 30 seconds of air time need to start planning now.
“You have to take a ‘let’s assume it’s happening’ approach, but build backup plans and adjust if things change,” says David Campanelli, chief investment officer, Horizon Media.
VaynerMedia, which created Big Game spots for Sabra, Hard Rock International and Planters in Super Bowl 2020, is operating as though it is going to happen, says Nick Miaritis, exec VP at the agency. “If the moment doesn’t happen, we will need to create something else around it,” he says.
Miaritis points to how VaynerMedia responded when March Madness was canceled at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. For Scotts Miracle-Gro, the pandemic hit at a critical time of year for the gardening brand—spring planting season. Vayner ditched the original plans for Scotts and instead leaned in to user-generated content of people enjoying their yards and gardens for the spring campaign.
“We are strategizing about Super Bowl with some brands as we normally would, even though it’s not normal times,” says Rob Schwartz, CEO at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, whose clients include PepsiCo and Nissan. “Brands are looking for Super Bowl ideas, but I would say it’s ‘big game’ with lower case letters, meaning nobody is quite sure if it is going to happen.”
“There is a hedge in every brief,” he adds. “The word ‘if’ is in every brief—if there is a cure, if there is a vaccine.”
Aside from the in-game creative, big National Football League sponsors like PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch InBev typically take a holistic approach, blending TV ad buys with glitzy on-the-ground events, such as branded concerts. But it’s difficult to plan experiential programs without knowing if fans will even be allowed at the game.
The Super Bowl halftime show would also look a lot different without fans in the stands. PepsiCo—which sponsors the spectacle—is “still actively talking” with the NFL and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, which has a contract with the league to advise on the selection of the show performers, Todd Kaplan, VP of marketing for PepsiCo’s flagship soda brand, recently told Ad Age. “Right now, the plan is there is going to a Super Bowl and there’s going to be a halftime show, and let’s keep planning it knowing things are going to evolve throughout the year,” he said.
For its part, the NFL is moving forward with plans to create a “Super Bowl Experience,” beginning on Jan. 29, spanning 2.7 miles along the Tampa Riverwalk and featuring “concerts, food and beverage, sponsor activations, NFL Shop presented by Visa and more,” according to a press release earlier this month from the Super Bowl .LV host committee. Lowe’s signed on as presenting sponsor of the experience which, for the first time, will be held entirely outside.
In a virtual press conference announcing the experience, NFL executive VP Peter O’Reilly stressed that “we will be flexible, we will be adaptable, and will work through whatever circumstances may come to bear,” adding that “health and safety will guide every single one of our decisions.”
“The whole Super Bowl strategy is pretty fluid across the board right now,” says Nick Kelly, VP of partnerships, beer culture and community for Anheuser-Busch InBev. “If it’s an empty stadium, your strategy will probably change to be more paid-media focused.”
This could be a win for CBS, which is currently out talking to the marketplace about Super Bowl opportunities in nearly the same way it would in a typical year. However, few brands seem eager to strike deals just yet.
CBS is asking for $5.5 million for a 30-second commercial, in-line with last year’s cost. While the eye network is currently in serious conversations with a few brands, according to a person familiar with the dialogue, it is unlikely it will declare it’s sold out of ad time before Thanksgiving, as Fox did last year when it aired the Super Bowl.
One critical point of negotiations is flexibility, with CBS willing to give money back to advertisers who make commitments for the Super Bowl, only for it to be canceled, according to people familiar with the situation.
The question is, with so much uncertainty, will a $5 million-dollar or more ad buy be worth it? “It will either be least-watched Super Bowl of all time or most-watched, and I don’t think it will fall in the middle, so it is a big bet to take,” says Rob Reilly, global creative chairman, McCann Worldgroup.
This year's game on Fox drew around 102 million viewers, and Reilly says if the NFL is able to figure out a compelling fan experience the Super Bowl is poised to draw more than that. “A lot depends on the fan experience for the NFL in the first weeks to decide if people will be bored by it,” without fans in the stadiums.
With many marketers’ budgets decimated by the coronavirus and so much uncertainty surrounding another wave of the virus, there's hesitation to rush to make commitments, even with flexibility baked in.
“We can’t even think about the Super Bowl at this point,” says one marketer who aired a commercial in the Super Bowl last year. “It is irresponsible of me to go to the CFO and ask for any big commitments beyond Halloween at this point.”
No big bets
Other brands that often rely on the Super Bowl to debut new products are rethinking this strategy.
“We are not planning on using the Super Bowl to launch anything in 2021,” says a second marketing executive at a regular Super Bowl advertiser. “We cannot sit here and say we are relying on this to launch a product because we don’t know if it will happen and can’t plan if it will.”
This doesn’t mean the brand won’t run a commercial in the Big Game if there is one. It just won’t rely on it—or any major live event—for any of its marketing plans for next year.
“In 2021 we are trying to look at things in a different way; we will be planning a lot more with independence of certain events,” the second marketing executive says. “We need to be smarter, resourceful. We need to ask, 'What do I already have in my arsenal that we can reuse?'”
Thus far, no major Super Bowl advertiser has publicly said it will not advertise in the game.
“What you are seeing from a lot of people like our friends out in Detroit, historically, they felt the need to commit to things but they are looking for a reason not to do things. They are waiting for someone to say they aren’t going to do it,” the second marketing executive says.
Kia and Hyundai, two of the most regular Super Bowl advertisers in the auto industry, declined to comment on their plans.
Then there are the questions surrounding commercial productions. Super Bowl ads are known for their star power and high production quality. While productions have resumed in certain locations, there’s the very real chance Super Bowl commercials will still need to be executed with some elements of social distancing and with a limited number of talent and crew—making this year’s Sabra hummus’ ad starring 18 celebrities, for example, a near impossibility to pull off for 2021.
While this could be a challenge, for some creatives the prospect is invigorating.
“Given the amount of uncertainty around production and what the Super Bowl will end up being this year, we could see a real re-imagining of what a Super Bowl spot looks like. The production limitations may actually allow for far greater creativity and lead to more unexpected and engaging ads,” VaynerMedia’s Miaritis says.
Super Bowl creative will also depend on the mood of the country coming out of the presidential election. Following Donald Trump’s win in 2016, many of the Super Bowl ads took very direct points of view on his win. It’s a 10 Haircare poked fun at Trump’s famous coiffe and promoting acceptance, while the full version of 84 Lumber’s ad showed a U.S.-Mexico border wall, a chief campaign promise of the newly inaugurated president.
How brands will reflect efforts around social justice and racism will also be top of mind. Over the last few years there’s been a slow push to diversify casting, both in front of the camera and behind it, with brands like Olay airing an all-female spot and marketers like Sabra and Amazon representing the LGBTQ community. There will certainly be plenty of eyes watching to make sure those efforts are amplified for 2021.
TBWA\Chiat\Day New York’s Schwartz predicts that “if there is a game, and that’s a big if, I think a lot of the work will be optimistic—I think it will be ‘hope is just around the corner.’”
One thing is certain: if an advertiser intends to be in the game, they will need to plan even earlier than usual, as productions could take longer to pull off in the current environment.
“Safety has added a complexity,” says McCann's Reilly. “It hasn't limited our thinking about what we can do, but we need to plan further in advance because it could take an extra month to do it.”