Super Bowl Ads: Brands Showing Fewer Cards And Spotlighting Social Issues This Year

In a rapidly changing television landscape, whose shifts constantly vex broadcast executives and advertisers, Super Bowl Sunday is like slipping into a warm bath of dollar bills.

Sunday’s 53rd (or should it be LIIIrd?) edition of the big game, which pits the Los Angeles Rams against the New England Patriots, is expected to generate more than $500 million for CBS, which is now wrapping up sales on its final slots for the telecast. The game will once again rack up the kind of live rating that is a supernova in today’s fragmented TV universe. CBS, which has broadcast the NFL since the 1950s, is airing the Super Bowl for the 20th time, more than any other network, and Tom Brady’s Patriots are back for their fourth appearance in the past five years.

On the advertising front, the broadcast will also feature many reassuringly familiar traits. Celebrities will once again appear as shills, new cars will be hawked, and rates for all of the above remain healthy, with 30-second spots going for a bit more than $5 million, nearly double the price tag a decade ago.

In the Ad Bowl arena, while many trendlines are holding steady there are some notable changes this year. Fewer commercials are getting a pre-game blitz, for one thing, with advertisers aiming to make the most of pent-up interest during the action instead of the gradual rollout favored in past years. Creatively, more and more brands are interested in causes or social issues rather than talking animals or spectacle for spectacle’s sake.

Data compiled by ad tracking firm iSpot show that the activity level is slightly more muted this year, despite the fact that many brands are putting a lot of ammunition in their marketing cannons. As of Wednesday, 36 brands had put out 108 different ads across digital and social platforms, at the high end of the range over recent years. While collective online viewing of those ads is 111 million and counting, about 60.4 million of that is unpaid via YouTube. It’s also markedly lower than in recent years — in 2016, for example, ads had piled up 201.8 million views. Social actions taken on this year’s crop are also at about half the rate of recent editions of the game.

Jo Ann Ross, President & Chief Advertising Revenue Officer for CBS, told Deadline “it may be true” that advertisers are keeping a tighter lid on campaigns heading into Sunday, adding, “We’ve had more requests for NDAs this year than in years past.” In general, though, she said there would not be an impact on the overall picture. “We are very, very happy with where we are,” she said of the network’s general outlook.

Creatively, many ads have a sincere, issue-driven focus, like the wind-power paean by Budweiser, set to Bob Dylan, or Verizon’s tribute to first responders. The environment is a bit different than the last two games, which followed the tempest of the 2016 election and the eruption of the #MeToo movement, respectively. But many consumer brands, given the many platforms where their messages go, want to communicate something with more sweep than a more ephemeral puppy-monkey-baby.

“The sense brands have is that viewers want to know, what are the top values of these brands?” said Aaron Goldman, CMO of 4C Insights, a data science and marketing tech company.

That isn’t to be said that fun won’t be had. Pepsi fit Steve Carell and Cardi B into the same antic half-minute. Amazon recruited an ensemble of A-listers like Harrison Ford and Forest Whitaker, Olay got Sarah Michelle Gellar; Doritos teamed Chance the Rapper with the Backstreet Boys; and Stella Artois paired Sarah Jessica Parker with Jeff Bridges. (See more ads below.) Trailers will also be a significant element. As Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro reported, major promos are set for Paramount’s Wonder Park and Universal’s Hobbs & Shaw, with Amazon also selling its action drama series Hanna.

Jeremy Carey, managing director of media agency Optimum Sports, part of ad giant Omnicom, said the bright spotlight of the Super Bowl “isn’t right for all brands.” But it is an ideal environment for grand gestures. Ridley Scott’s immortal “Big Brother” Apple Macintosh spot in 1984 aired once on the Super Bowl, but never again. “You’re not going to come in and say, ‘We’re having a sale on Tuesday,’” Carey said, noting that the game is ripe for what he called “anthem-esque spots” with larger ambitions.

It can be difficult singing an anthem on key, however. Most post-game polls and the tally of YouTube views tend to favor the light and the frothy. Last year’s most-viewed spot on YouTube, for example, did not have politics on the brain. It was Amazon’s commercial for Alexa with Rebel Wilson, Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.

One cautionary tale occurred outside of the Super Bowl zone but bears a mention in the big game conversation. In a 2-minute spot never intended for Sunday’s big stage, Gillette this month rolled out a bold new take on its “The Best a Man Can Get” slogan, which explored toxic masculinity in all its forms. After its release online, it got widely sampled but harshly criticized. According to 4C, the ad generated a 9,000% increase in online conversation about the razor brand, but a 29% decrease in consumer sentiment.

“It’s definitely a tightrope,” Goldman said. “Here we are in a divided country and brands have a very broad audience to speak to.”

The pattern of consistency with the Super Bowl — especially coming off an NFL season of rebounding ratings after worrisome downturns the past two seasons — contrasts with the state of affairs for live award shows. NBC’s Golden Globes telecast this month was flat with 2018, but other shows’ ratings — notably those of ABC’s Academy Awards telecast — have been declining markedly along with other programming. Fox’s Rent Live on Sunday established a record low tune-in for live musicals.

CBS is a stakeholder on the awards scene as well, with its Grammy Awards telecast set for February 10. Linda René, the network’s EVP of Primetime Sales and Innovation, said the stream of live performances at the Grammys — which tend to dominate any speech-making — can “create a cultural moment” with value for advertisers. “Everything stops and everybody is talking about what they just saw,” she said. “Target for years did these four-minute [Grammy night] performances that made almost as much noise as the show did.”

Political grandstanding has also been less visible on the football field of late, which lessens the tension some brands had felt in 2016 and 2017. While the Maroon 5-fronted Super Bowl halftime show has resurfaced discontent about the treatment of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the issue of kneeling during the national anthem has subsided in general. The level of political controversy “has been light this year,” Carey observed. “And the quality of play has gotten better. Time spent per viewer went up 10% this NFL season.”

As John Bogusz, EVP of Sports Sales & Marketing at CBS, put it, “All of the talk now is about the play on the field.”

Here are more Hollywood-driven ads that will touch down Sunday:

Ford, Whitaker, Glazer and Jacobson for Amazon Alexa

Sarah Michelle Gellar for Oil of Olay

Charlie Sheen and Alex Rodriguez for Planters

Christina Applegate for M&Ms

Jason Bateman for Hyundai

Chance the Rapper and Backstreet Boys for Doritos

Zoe Kravitz for Michelob Ultra Pure Gold

Luke Wilson for Colgate

Kristin Chenoweth for Avocados from Mexico

Tony Romo for Sketchers:

Adam Scott and 2 Chainz for Expensify:

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