Since 1983 when Anheuser-Busch first bought ad time at the Super Bowl, Budweiser has had a presence at the big game. This year, the company is sitting out and donating the money it would have used for advertising to COVID-19 vaccination awareness campaigns.
Anheuser-Busch has still purchased approximately four minutes of ad time for other brands such as Bud Light, Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, Michelob Ultra and Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer – products that appeal heavily to the Super Bowl’s young adult audience – but the choice to not promote Budweiser has come as quite a shock.
After years of iconic commercials, including those featuring the “Budweiser frogs” and the classic “Budweiser Clydesdales,” many feel that something will be missing from Super Bowl LV without a new hit ad from the company.
“We have a pandemic that is casting a pall over just about everything,” said Paul Argenti, Dartmouth College professor of corporate communication. “It’s hard to feel the exuberance and excitement people normally would.”
Other age-old Super Bowl advertisers have decided to make similar moves this year, with PepsiCo refraining from promoting its Pepsi brand (only using it to sponsor the halftime show) and offering minor ads for Mountain Dew and Frito-Lay products in its place. Coke, Audi and Avocados from Mexico will also be absent from Super Bowl LV.
“I think the advertisers are correctly picking up on this being a riskier year for the Super Bowl,” said Charles Taylor, a marketing professor from Villanova University. “With COVID and economic uncertainty, people aren’t necessarily in the best mood to begin with. There’s a risk associated with messages that are potentially too light. At the same time, there’s risk associated with doing anything too somber.”
Given the ever-escalating cost of Super Bowl ads – this year at an estimated $5.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime – it’s no surprise that some companies have had to re-evaluate their spending habits as a result of the pandemic as well. For instance, Coca-Cola announced layoffs just last December, and they noted that they wouldn’t be advertising this year to instead “[invest] in the right resources during these unprecedented times.”
Certain brands, including M&M’s, Pringles and Toyota, will be returning this year, but their ads will have been shot months in advance, under COVID-19 related production constraints and without any knowledge of the sociopolitical upheaval that has struck the nation these past few weeks. Since many promos like to tap into the cultural zeitgeist, it remains to be seen how these companies will thread the needle by being topical without coming across as tacky and diverting without being seen as distasteful.
“It’s [just] a tough year to do an ad,” Argenti said.
Monica Rustgi, Budweiser’s vice president of marketing, stated that the company was still deciding on how much it would donate to its aforementioned vaccine awareness campaign, but she insisted that it would be a “multi-million-dollar commitment,” and that these contributions would continue throughout the year, benefitting both the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative’s COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative.
At the very least, on Monday, Feb. 1, Budweiser will air an ad celebrating “resilience” during the pandemic, spotlighting a socially distanced birthday parade and athletes in Black Lives Matter jerseys. Narrated by actress Rashida Jones (“Parks and Recreation,” “On the Rocks”), the ad will end with visuals of essential workers getting vaccinated.