The COVID-19 pandemic, in culmination with social and political unrest, have shifted the marketing communications landscape since March 2020, trickling into the New Year with anticipated impact on traditional advertising for Super Bowl LV.

With that in mind, I sat down with Gatesman’s Executive Vice President, Executive Creative Director Julie Allard and Associate Vice President Aleya Jennings to learn more about their predictions for the “Big Game.”

Beth Thompson: In the PR team’s daily What’s Trending meetings, we have noticed that a lot of traditional Super Bowl advertisers have pulled out of the game this year. Julie, why do you think that is? Is the price tag worth the investment during these weird times?

Julie Allard: Some are using it to their advantage – like Miller Lite and their marketing stunt to get free beer. It’s kind of an anti-strategy, and I feel if you are different enough and first to the plate with it, it may be successful without the big price tag.
Other brands are looking at whether the gamble of striking the right tone after all that we went through in 2020 and into 2021 is worth the gamble and the high investment. We see some bigger brands not in the mix at all, like Coca-Cola, who said in an interview with the NY Post, “This difficult choice was made to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times.”

Also not making an appearance are Hyundai, Olay, Avocados From Mexico, Little Caesars and Ford. That’s not to say it’s a forever thing, as a lot of these brands say they’ll be back, or re-inventing. I can see how brands would tread carefully. They want to make a statement, but worried that it may be interpreted the wrong way such as the infamous Kendall Jenner ad from Pepsi. That was mocked; I mean referenced for months in a lot of ad agency and client meetings, and that was even before the birth of cancel culture.

Beth Thompson: Very interesting. The brands that have pulled out of the game certainly have made room for new advertisers, like TikTok competitor Triller and online car seller Vroom. Aleya, what do you think made these brands want to jump in and secure a spot for the game?

Aleya Jennings: This is going to be one of the most-watched events of the year, especially as social distancing orders are still in place and people are spending more time in their immediate bubbles. The brands we see advertising in this year's Big Game will be hypersensitive to the consumer needs, demand and behavioral shifts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic – centered on convenience and accessibility, safety, spending more time at home and unexpected moments of happiness and relatability.

Brands will have to be very mindful of what they say, how they say it and who they use to say it. We live in an environment where “cancel culture” is pervasive, and consumers are exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally and socially due to the pandemic, political division and racial disparities.

The brands that decided to advertise this year have something important to say that will break through the brokenness and clutter that consumers may be feeling. They know their value proposition in this ever-changing landscape (what they say), the unique message and tone that will resonate with their target audience at this particular time (how they say it), and how it comes to life through talent – diversity, are they six feet apart, limited cast, CGI, humor and consciousness (who they use to say it).

Beth Thompson: I agree with you. Every move, and every action needs to be intentional and well-thought out. Julie, based on the brands that have decided to participate, are there any spots that have caught your eye from those that have been pre-released so far?

Julie Allard: I have to admit, I almost wish I could be oblivious and wait until the game to watch. I just like that experience of seeing ads in that context. There are a few that I wanted to take a look at for various reasons. For example, Robinhood. With as much as they’ve been in the news lately, I was curious what kind of statement they would bring. I was let down by that one as I felt it was pretty generic, but suspect they made it before the controversy. There are a several I was impressed by, however.

  • Squatch – You’re Not a Dish. I thought it was super funny. I loved that it didn’t need a celebrity and the braided hair line was hilarious but also showed that manly men have a softer side beyond stereotypes.
  • General Motors – No Way Norway. I liked the premise of this and put the EV question into context beyond the typical environment play. It also made me want to see if there was more content.
  • M&Ms – Come Together. It’s why BBDO is king of TV. It’s funny and gives another reason to enjoy and give M&Ms. Did it go too far? I don’t think so. Maybe on the line and there may be some actual “mad Karens.” But then again, maybe they can just give them M&Ms.
  • Toyota – Upstream. Super emotional. I don’t know if you needed all the water everywhere to tell the story. It was so beautiful and raw, but I found the water distracting.
  • Anheuser Busch – Let’s Grab a Beer. Nice insights here and good commercial storytelling. Most importantly, it was not too contrived or salesy.
  • Squarespace – 5 to 9. And last but not least, a shout out to Squarespace because I love Dolly. And I believe Dolly when she says, “You can do it!” Dolly, you are a national treasure.

Beth Thompson: Humor. Tugging on the heart strings. Unexpected celebrity endorsements. All relevant and certainly present in those spots that you mentioned, Julie. But is that enough? Aleya, what else should brands be thinking about in order to stand out, especially on such a large advertising stage where much of the world is watching?

Aleya Jennings: Brands should be thinking about a lot, especially this year. Humor, emotion and celebrity endorsements are not enough to bring a quality Game Day ad to life. I know I will be closely monitoring all spots for its representation and inclusion of diverse populations. The industry was disrupted and called out for not hiring and elevating diverse talent in 2020. Many agencies seemed to answer the call with a willingness to do the work of prioritizing hiring diverse talent to ensure the room included BIPOC talent and other underrepresented groups. The ads we see on Sunday will be a public display of what those teams looked like – who managed, concepted, executed and produced behind the scenes. This year, it is an absolute must that brands not only embrace diversity and inclusion, but also ensure representation is accurate.

I am expecting to see cultural insights and nuances reflected in a sensitive, respectful and real-life way. Advertising should appropriately mirror society.

In addition to seeing accurate, diverse representation, I am looking to see how brands will centralize unification throughout their messaging. Behind the humor and celebrity appearances, there should be a message that most can resonate with and remind us that we are all human, still standing, and that our future is brighter than our past.

Beth Thompson: Very important point. We certainly have learned a lot, especially this past year. And there is more to learn as it’s on all of us as marketing communications professionals to ensure equal representation and inclusion across all facets of our business. We have the power to make change and appropriately mirror society, as you said. Like you, I do believe our future is brighter than our past – and I look forward to seeing what that looks like.

My last question! What other predictions do you have for the Super Bowl this year? One prediction that I have is the continued focus on inserting a digital call to action within advertising. Many brands will think through ways to keep the conversation going after the spot runs – whether that’s pushing people to a landing page, reintroducing what used to be the “dying QR code” or elevating participation on social media. Many CPG brands like Doritos have done this well in the past and I expect to see more of it this year.

Aleya Jennings: I agree! If a brand does not aim to control the conversation across digital and social platforms, the consumer will. If the follow-up conversation is controlled by the consumer, then it is up to the consumer’s discretion if the brand missed the mark or delivered. If the consumer feels the brand missed the mark, the advertising effort could potentially result in a misallocation of resources as it did not achieve the awareness or path down the consumer journey it intended to receive on such a grand stage.

I am also curious if we will see any influencer extensions to “organically” control the perception/conversation on social.

Beth Thompson: Well, thanks ladies! This was fun! Speaking of social, we are going to keep this conversation going live during the “Big Game!” Chat with us on Twitter @gatesmanagency to hear real-time commentary of the spots that we dub heroes or zeros! Also, as another shameless plug, we are releasing a special podcast episode of Ads for Lunch on Monday around noon. Make sure to check that out here!  

About Gatesman

With offices in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Gatesman offers expertise in strategy/branding, advertising, public relations, social media, digital and analytics. Gatesman is a partner in AMIN Worldwide, an alliance of over 50 independent marketing agencies, and IPREX, a global communications network. Gatesman acquired Quest Fore in 2014 and Noble Communications in 2017.