No Super Bowl for you: why some brands aren’t buying spots in this year’s game

What's the score with brands sitting out the big game this year?

As Super Bowl LII fast approaches, brands have begun the process of teasing their game day campaigns in hopes of garnering buzz in the days leading up to it.

A handful of brands, including Avocados From Mexico, Amazon and Kraft, have revealed teaser videos that show what viewers can expect to see. Others, including Febreze, Pringles, Budweiser and Groupon, have released their spots in full ahead of this weekend’s game.

While some advertisers are sure to wait until game day to unveil what they have in store, others won’t be making an appearance at all during this year’s Super Bowl. Brands including Honda, KFC, GoDaddy, and Intel - all of which purchased airtime during last year’s game - have said they have no plans to air a spot this year.

There are myriad reasons why a brand might sit out of Super Bowl LII, the most obvious being the hefty $5m price tag that comes with 30 seconds of airtime. And with the Winter Olympics and 60th Grammy Awards both occurring within weeks of the big game, some brands have opted to invest in those events instead this year.

Others might not be convinced of the effectiveness of Super Bowl ads, and for good reason: last year, a survey conducted by advertising research firm Communicus revealed that only 10% of consumers remember the average Super Bowl ad and know the brand advertised. The research also found that 80% of commercials during the game fail to change consumer opinions and intentions regarding a brand.

Even so, many brands can’t seem to resist the more than 100 million pairs of eyeballs that tune into Super Bowl each year. While the game continues to be the most-watched TV broadcast each year in the US, that doesn’t take away from the fact that some marketers are beginning to feel as though the heyday of Super Bowl advertising may have come and gone.

Jennifer Zimmerman, global chief strategy officer at McGarryBowen, says that the format can feel dated in a world where “it’s much more about finding new formats, finding fresh ground, finding new experiences” that move beyond the 60-second spot.

“We are working for a lot of really big brands that have big initiatives and are making big bets, and none of them this year are in the Super Bowl,” she says. “It feels very old school for a lot of brands.”

Taking sides

For marketers who think the Super Bowl hasn’t lost its luster quite yet, today’s divisive political climate could be enough reason to keep them on the sidelines this year, especially after a handful of brands came under fire last year for airing Super Bowl ads with a social stance.

After Audi released its ad championing equal pay ahead of last year’s game, critics were quick to call the automaker hypocritical since its executive team is mostly male. Budweiser’s ad, which told the story of its German founder’s journey to the US, resulted in a boycott threat by Trump supporters who saw the spot as being a direct dig at the president’s immigration policies despite the beer brand’s insistence that it wasn’t meant to be a politically charged ad. Building supplies company 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl campaign proved to be controversial as well since it referenced President Trump’s border wall.

Considering the most talked-about advertisers at last year’s game were also ones who found themselves on the receiving end of criticism, brands may see it’s a safer bet to sit out this year rather than risk backlash.

“There’s a bit of a catch-22 going on right now because all brands are needing to be more challenging and controversial to stand out,” Zimmerman says. “The Super Bowl is a place where there’s tremendous scrutiny of advertisers, and I think the odds of getting it right are lower than the odds of getting it wrong.”

Fear of getting it wrong on advertising’s biggest stage is something that’s likely hindered advertiser enthusiasm around the game this year, especially as brands grapple with whether or not it’s appropriate to weigh in on movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. MT Carney, chief executive of Untitled Worldwide, thinks brands who feel pressure to comment on political or social issues may opt to avoid the Super Bowl altogether for fear that the risks may outweigh the benefits.

“People are nervous to put their head above the parapet now,” says Carney. “Before, you just had to do something that really stands out, and now I think people think they need to do something that really stands out but also has some kind of social message.”

Even brands who don’t intend to rock the boat or make a statement during the game could find themselves in hot water if viewers interpret their message as being politically oriented. Catherine Hays, executive director of The Wharton Future of Advertising Program at the University of Pennsylvania, says that today’s contentious political landscape has many people seeing the ads around them through a partisan lens - especially on a night like the Super Bowl when viewers are actively paying attention to what brands have to say.

“In this day and age with the polarization that’s going on, so many things could be considered political,” explains Hays. “Whether it’s featuring a woman where she wouldn’t have been featured before or a minority or somebody who’s an immigrant, it’s going to be taken as political because that’s really the lens through which this current environment really is [at the moment].”

On the fringe

This year, a number of brands have chosen to create Super Bowl buzz for themselves without actually purchasing a block of airtime during the game. Whether it’s to save money or avoid the aforementioned risks that come with actually buying a spot, it’s an option that brands are increasingly seeing as an attractive alternative to the traditional ad buy.

For instance, Skittles has managed to make a lot of noise in the weeks leading up to the game by promising that its ad starring David Schwimmer will only have an audience of one, a teenager named Marcos Menendez. Although the actual ad itself will only be seen by one, the candy brand has wasted no time teasing the spot with off-the-wall clips featuring Schwimmer.

While it’s an odd strategy, and one that will likely result in the rest of America seeing the ad at some point in time, it’s an approach that’s helping Skittles cut through some of the Super Bowl clutter.

“We always want to find ways to reinvent ourselves and stand out, and we think creating the most exclusive Super Bowl ad ever does exactly that,” said a Skittles spokesperson in a statement.

Other brands have adopted similar strategies. Kind Bars has pledged to give away $6m worth of free bars instead of spending that money on a 30-second spot, while Tostitos is promoting its chips and dip ahead of the game via a customizable “invite creator” for Super Bowl party hosts. Pizza Hut is promising to give out free pizza to its rewards members if the record for the fastest touchdown is broken during the game.

“A lot of folks are choosing to either hack these big events or find other virgin territories where perhaps they can stand out without the same level of analysis and scrutiny that is accompanying the Super Bowl these days,” says Zimmerman. “I think increasingly, people are trying to be adjacent without being advertisers.”

Without the confines of a 30 or 60-second spot, brands have more room to be creative and do something that can target a particular audience or segment instead of trying to appeal to the mass audience that the Super Bowl brings with it. And, as Zimmerman points out, the sheer number of eyeballs that watch the game's ads each year - and often pick them apart or ridicule them on social media in real time - is sometimes a reason why a brand ultimately chooses to stay away from the Super Bowl.

“The reason [advertisers] used to love it is increasingly the reason I think people have more caution around it,” she says. “They’re afraid to misstep in a world that has greater repercussions.”

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