As much as the dreariness of the last 10 months will be in evidence during the Super Bowl—inside Raymond James Stadium, cardboard cutouts will outnumber flesh-and-blood fans, making this the least-attended NFL title tilt ever—CBS hopes the Chiefs-Bucs showdown will still manage to light up all the usual pleasure centers. A few hours of excitement and escapism on Sunday night could be just what the doctor ordered, and advertisers are doing what they can to help try and keep things light.
Speaking on a pre-game conference call, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that while the network won’t gloss over the COVID-19 narrative, it neither will go out of its way to bum out its 100 million viewers. “We’re not going to be somber, and we’re not going to be depressing, but I think we’re going to put everything in perspective,” McManus said. “It’s a time to escape and a time to really appreciate what we have with respect to this country and everything else.”
In Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, the CBS booth is a finely calibrated machine designed to strike just the right balance between gravitas and exuberance, and once the color commentator lets fly with his first “Oh, Jim! Jim! Jim!” the latter element is practically contagious.
“It’s all about tone,” McManus said. “Listen, are we going to get excited if Brady or Mahomes throws a 60-yard touchdown pass or if Tyreek Hill goes crazy? We’re going to get excited and kind of forget our troubles for awhile.” That said, McManus allowed that the presence of 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers and the “overhang” of the pandemic will give this Super Bowl a somewhat unfamiliar flavor.
Which isn’t to say the game will be freighted with a sort of suffocating solemnity; rather, look for the broadcast to reflect a sense of optimism that “we’re all going to pull through it, and we’re going to pull through it together.”
Romo’s enthusiasm [on the conference call] for the Brady-Mahomes clash was downright giddying; if a biochemist could figure out how to convert the $17 million man’s hype into pill form, America would have a new party drug on its hands. “This is the matchup people will be talking about 25 to 50 years from now,” Romo said, while practically levitating off his seat. “As a football fan, this is as good as it gets. This one is really special.”
Advertisers are similarly pumped, as the one-for-the-ages pairing is the best possible outcome for any brand trying to convert impressions into sales. While a few companies are forging ahead with maudlin in-game spots meant to capitalize on our already tenderized psyches, many of the commercials we’ll see on Sunday night will lean hard into the sort of goofiness that has come to define a Big Game ad.
For example, Will Ferrell, who brings his signature brew of manic elan to General Motors’ 60-second spot, all but issues a fatwa against Norway when he learns that half the vehicles sold in the Scandinavian land are electric. (At 4%, the U.S. has a long way to go before it catches up with these herring-snackers.) Ferrell famously appeared in Old Milwaukee’s unofficial 2012 Super Bowl XLVI ad, which aired exclusively in the 15,180-TV-households market of North Platte, Neb.
Another slightly more elongated comic actor serves up the weirdness in Jimmy John’s first-ever Super Bowl spot. Brad Garrett, who made his bones playing Ray Romano’s brother on Everybody Loves Raymond, stars as Tony Bolognavich, a cold cuts kingpin-slash-wiseguy who finds himself in a real vendetta kind of mood when the sandwich chain starts stepping on his turf. While there are plenty of sight gags to keep CBS viewers giggling, Garrett/Bolognavich’s insistence on referring to the brand as “Jimmy’s John’s” is sufficiently funny to make us overlook his henchman’s pronunciation of “capocollo.”
Other cheerfully dopey spots include Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer’s Big Game debut, which stars Don Cheadle and a host of celebrity lookalikes; a knowingly meta Wayne’s World ad for Uber Eats in which Wayne and Garth (and Cardi B) riff on all the played out ways in which Super Bowl marketers try to subvert the will of the consumer; and a Doritos commercial featuring a two-dimensional Matthew McConaughey, who nearly meets his maker when a rogue Roomba starts ingesting his fax-paper-thin left leg.
One of the few in-game spots to make so much as an oblique reference to the pandemic is Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade’s “Last Year’s Lemons,” a 60-second spot that plays the hardships of 2020 for laughs. The deluge of lemons plummeting from the sky is reminiscent of the end of the 1999 movie Magnolia, only instead of a plague of disgusting frogs, the actors are pelted with fresh citrus. There’s also a nod to the sublimely ridiculous Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” video, which makes this the most Gen X-friendly Super Bowl ad of all time.
While there will be some schmaltz to choke down (as there always is), this year’s crop of Super Bowl advertisers has wisely left much of the more manipulative/heartstring-tugging fare on the cutting-room floor. Anheuser-Busch’s 60-second brand spot “Let’s Grab a Beer” is wildly effective, in that it reminds us of all the reasons we’ll have to get together over a few brews once we get back to whatever “normal” is supposed to look like. As a bonus, the funeral scene from the extended-dance-mix that is A-B’s 90-second version won’t air on CBS; it probably goes without saying, but the Super Bowl is neither the time nor the place to remind everyone of the relentless inevitability of the Big Dirt Nap.
Along with hearses and headstones, among the other things you won’t see much of during this year’s game include car ads and movie trailers. At present, only five in-game auto spots from three nameplates have been confirmed, down considerably from last year. According to Kantar Media, automakers accounted for $77 million of the overall Super Bowl LIV ad spend last year, snapping up seven minutes and 30 seconds of airtime to promote seven different nameplates (Audi, Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, GMC, Porsche, Jeep). Among the brands that are sitting out this year’s game are Ford, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
As for the movie studios, only Disney has confirmed an in-game buy. The Mouse House has more than 20 films in the hopper for 2021, several of which are holdovers from last year’s much-disrupted slate.
While some of these advertiser absences are as inevitable as the tens of thousands of empty seats in Tampa, the mood of the commercial slate mostly will conform to CBS’s vision of what the Super Bowl is all about.
“We have great anticipation and excitement for the game, and I think it’s coming at a really important time in our country,” McManus said. “I think America needs this Super Bowl. It’s an opportunity for the country to come together. I think it’s going to be uplifting. I think it’s going to be unifying, and I think it’s coming at the right time. I really do hope that it’s a celebration for everything that is great about this country.”