Why Big Brands Like Budweiser and Pepsi are Skipping Super Bowl Ads this Year

by Josh Lanier

If you tune in to the Super Bowl for the commercials, you may want to lower your expectations for this year. A number of major brands have said they’re not going to advertise during this year’s big game on Feb. 7. That means no Budweiser Clydesdales or buying the world a Coke. Those brands have pulled out of traditional Super Bowl advertising.

Why? Blame 2020.

The pandemic, civil unrest, riots, economic upheaval don’t make for fun commercials. And those create a small target for brands to hit with big downsides if they miss.

“If you are too somber, funny, or incendiary — or if you don’t strike the ‘right’ chord for the moment — the backlash can be significant,” University of Virginia assistant marketing professor Kimberly Whitler told USA Today. “Everything is magnified. Press — good and bad — is amplified. The risk is simply greater.”

So far, Coke, Hyundai, Olay, Avocados From Mexico, Little Caesars, and Ford have opted out of their traditional spots in the Super Bowl, Variety reported. Pepsi has also pulled its ads but will still sponsor the halftime show.

“Every client conversation I’ve had these days is about who is going to be offended by this ad,” said Rob Schwartz, chief executive officer of ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. “There’s a lot of discussion about risk mitigation. What that tends to do is that it makes things very bland and not effective or it forces you to look at universal topics like hope or humor.”

A mistake can cost a company millions in lost revenue and bad press. For example, people still complain about that 2017 Super Bowl Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner. Aside from the political costs, the actual cost for the airtime is incredibly high, as well.

The Price of Super Bowl Ads

According to the Wall Street Journal, CBS wants $5.5 million for 30 seconds worth of Super Bowl airtime. That’s down slightly from last year, but it’s still a difficult pill for some companies who have struggled during the pandemic. Some companies are preferring to better parse out their ad dollars at more opportune times.

Coke told CNBC it wanted to “ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times,” according to Inside Hook.

Hyundai has had an ad in the past five Super Bowls, but they’re sitting out this year. That’s because it’s just not the best time for the brand, a spokesman told Ad Age.

“This was a decision based on marketing priorities, the timing of upcoming vehicle launches, and where we felt it was best to allocate our marketing resources,” according to a company spokesperson. They added, “we will certainly be back.”   

And that’s not even factoring in how forgotten some of these ads end up being. For every Old Spice “Look at me, now look at your man” or Michael Jordan versus Larry Bird McDonalds commercial there are countless ads that people forget the moment the game comes back on.

Remember Bryan Cranston’s The Shining-inspired Mountain Dew ad? No one else does either.

So, in some sense, not much is going to change as the return on investment has always been a gamble.

“The Super Bowl is going to be like it was for the last 30 years, meaning, for the 75 brands advertising, it’s going to be a big waste of money, and for 10 it is going to be a bargain,” David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at ad agency BBDO, told the New York Post.

Companies Want to Use Ads for Good

Budweiser won’t run a major ad campaign during the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have ads. The company wants to do something larger.

“Like everyone else, we are eager to get people back together, reopen restaurants and bars, and be able to gather to cheers with friends and family,” Budweiser vice president of marketing Monica Rustgi said in a statement. “To do this, and to bring consumers back into neighborhood bars and restaurants that were hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic, we’re stepping in to support critical awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Chrysler took a message-driven approach in 2012 as the nation was clawing its way out of the Great Recession. It’s Clint Eastwood-narrated “It’s Halftime in America” spot won the night.

But as larger brands are leaving the Super Bowl, smaller companies are advertising during the game for the first time. Some of those include Vroom and Door Dash, USA Today said.

Chipotle will also have its first Super Bowl commercial this year. A company spokesperson told Business Insider that the pandemic has changed how people interact with brands.

“The company believes the global pandemic has shifted consumer behavior to lean towards a community-focused society, further igniting a passion inside of many for making purchasing decisions that drive difference in the world around them,” the spokesperson said.

It’s inevitable that major advertisers will return. The Super Bowl is the most-watched television event in America by far. It’s not even close, considering the game consistently draws an audience of more than 100 million people. Network television prime time shows that draw in an audience a tenth of that size are considered smash hits.