It’s cuddles—not controversy—for many Super Bowl advertisers this year

Aerial view of Raymond James Stadium, site of Super Bowl LV between The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs on January 31, 2021. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX

Businesses shelling out for ads during Super Bowl LV will likely avoid the controversial content designed  to generate branding buzz, and instead embrace feel-good messaging following a tumultuous year.

That means viewers should expect more Cookie Monster, less Cindy Crawford.

Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Nostalgia is going to be very important. People really would like to go back in time to before the pandemic and before society got so politically polarized,” says Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern.

“Advertisers are looking to create associations between consumer brands and a sense of good days before the pandemic,” he says.

Cue Cookie Monster—along with other beloved Sesame Street characters like Grover and Big Bird. In an ad released before the big game, Cookie is ready to om nom nom his way through a box of his favorite treats delivered by DoorDash, a food delivery service in high demand during the pandemic.

Wayne’s World” duo Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey will also appear in an ad for Uber Eats, along with Cardi B, in a nod to the “Shameless Manipulation” product placement gag from their 1990s-era “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

“Traditionally Super Bowl ads want to produce something memorable, which is why they’ll do something that’s outrageous or sexy or controversial,” says Bart. “This year is interesting because so much has happened, brands may feel pressure to address the issues that everyone is talking about.”

Spending a whopping $5.5 million on a fleeting 30 seconds of advertising might spark ill will towards a company as many Americans remain unemployed and financially struggling, Bart says. The toll of COVID-19, racial injustice, and the country’s deep political divide remain ongoing issues, and companies must walk a careful line between being flippant and being a downer.

The super-high stakes might explain why well-established advertisers like Coke and Anheuser-Busch made a calculated decision to opt out of the ads this year, he says. The executives behind Budweiser beer announced they’ll put the money they would have spent on advertising towards COVID-19 vaccination awareness.

“Teasers have been generally slower to leak this year, and I think that’s interesting in and of itself,” says Bart. 

Still, the big game offers a rare chance for advertisers to reach a huge audience as 100 million people prepare to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face off against the Kansas City Chiefs on CBS this Sunday at 6:30 pm.

“Super Bowl advertising remains the only opportunity for companies to communicate something simultaneously to tens of millions of people,” says Bart. “It’s a chance many brands don’t want to miss.”

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