The brand that is now all but synonymous with the Super Bowl will be conspicuous by its absence from this year’s game, as Budweiser has elected to sit out the NFL title tilt for the first time in nearly 40 years.
In lieu of its usual in-game presence, the King of Beers will instead reallocate its promotional outlay toward a public awareness initiative designed to help educate Americans about the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Budweiser will direct the funds it otherwise would have spent on Super Bowl LV inventory to the Ad Council, which is spearheading the PSA campaign in conjunction with a dozen major medical associations.
Along with Budweiser, other corporate donors to the Ad Council effort include Comcast, Bank of America and General Motors.
This will be the first Super Bowl without a Budweiser commercial since NBC aired the 17th installment of the Big Game® back in January 1983. A-B that year put all of its promotional muscle behind a low-octane newcomer that at the time was still being marketed under the handle “Budweiser Light.” (In the days before A-B secured category exclusivity, other beer brands bubbled up each year; among them Stroh’s, Schlitz and, improbably enough, Blatz.)
The cost of a 30-second spot in that skipped Skins-Dolphins game was a mere $400,000. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to $1.04 million today—and is still quite a bargain: That amount would buy you five whole seconds of airtime in Super Bowl LV, should CBS Sports ad sales gurus John Bogusz and Tony Taranto be so inclined to slice the pie that thin. (N.B.: There is some precedent for this, as A-B’s 2019 Super Bowl buy, a record five-and-a-half-minute investment with CBS, included a bumper that aired during each quarter. But to try and finagle a standalone five-tick buy would be folly—this is the Super Bowl, after all, not some stupid Internet thing.)
While Budweiser’s decision to divert its Super Bowl cash to the vaccination campaign will keep the Clydesdales paddocked for another year, this is not to say that its sibling brands won’t be suiting up for CBS’s broadcast. As was the case a year ago when Fox carried Super Bowl LIV, Anheuser-Busch has purchased four minutes of in-game spots from CBS, giving it ample time to roll out the promotional barrel for Bud Light, Michelob Ultra and two hard-seltzer products that have been spun off from those low-calorie beer brands.
In addition to the brand-focused ads, Anheuser-Busch on Super Sunday will kick off a new corporate campaign, a first for the brewer and an unconventional choice during what will be the most-watched broadcast of 2021. Given the steep cost of an in-game unit—CBS’s going rate is around $5.5 million for each 30-second increment, although it’s worth noting that A-B, long a top spender, isn’t beholden to the standard rate card—Super Bowl advertisers generally look to maximize the return on their investment by crafting an ad that will lead directly to an increase in sales. Soft-focused spots that trumpet somewhat nebulous ideals while drawing attention to a company’s core values don’t necessarily set the cash registers to ringing.
According to Marcel Marcondes, the U.S. CMO of Anheuser-Busch, this year’s less-than-mercenary game plan was very much shaped by the events of 2020. “When it comes to marketing, we don’t want to return to ‘normal,’” Marcondes wrote in a letter accompanying A-B’s Super Bowl announcement. “We want to use what we’ve learned [from the pandemic] to connect better with people and keep moving forward.”
A-B did not make any of its creative available ahead of today’s announcement, but its own description of the corporate spot would seem to reinforce the notion that the ad is designed to make a statement rather than shift units. According to the A-B marketing team, the corporate spot will “remind people of the real-life moments—big and small—when being together matters most.”
Of course, A-B’s commitment to fighting the coronavirus isn’t exclusively altruistic; after all, the sooner the pandemic is brought to heel, the sooner we can all start going back to the stadium/arena/ballpark. And once we do return to whatever luxury boxes or nosebleed seats we left behind last spring, we’ll have an awful lot of catching up to do over some ice cold beers.
A-B began pitching in on the coronavirus relief effort in April, when it started mass-producing hand sanitizer at a brewery located just north of Syracuse, N.Y., and at a second location in Los Angeles. The following month, the company redirected $5 million that normally would have been spent on sports and entertainment marketing to the American Red Cross. The latter action coincided with A-B’s decision to curb its media spend in light of the nationwide closure of bars and restaurants.
“My biggest takeaway from the last year is that we must prioritize humanity—treating our consumers as human beings rather than as ‘targets’ and purpose,” Marcondes wrote. “It’s clear that we must continue to adjust our content and products to better serve people, not the other way around.”
This isn’t the first time A-B has used marketing’s biggest megaphone to get out a We’re-All-In-This-Together message. In 2018, Budweiser’s Super Bowl centerpiece featured the employees of A-B’s Cartersville, Ga., facility, which over a span of 30 years has helped produce and distribute upwards of 83 million cans of clean drinking water to victims of natural disasters. As was the case with last year’s Kathryn Bigelow-directed Budweiser spot, the iconic Clydesdales failed to make an appearance in the brand’s Super Bowl LII creative.
Including this year’s Bud-free broadcast, the wooly-hoofed draught horses are now on pace to miss three of the last four Super Bowls. While the Clydesdales first appeared on the tube way back in 1967, they wouldn’t make their Super Bowl debut for another eight years. A-B paid approximately $107,000 to air its 30-second “Foal” spot, which was broadcast to an audience of 56.1 million viewers. For a sense of just how long ago that really was, bear in mind that Super Bowl IX marked the first-ever title shot for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Since then, Pittsburgh has suited up for a grand total of eight Super Bowls, and Budweiser’s Clydesdales have been joined by cuddly puppies, animatronic frogs, sentient longnecks and the Whassup? Guys.