Skip to main content

As one of the most watched televised sporting events on the planet, the Super Bowl has long established itself as an iconic tradition of American culture that brings together music and entertainment, athletics, and some of each year’s most expensive, creatively crafted ads. In 2020, advertisers spent a record $435 million during the game, and in 2021, ad spots run $5.5 million per 30 second placement. However this year, traditional big spenders like Pepsi and Hyundai have backed away from the event alongside perennial viewer favorite since the 1980’s, Budweiser. 

The shift tracks with other industries concerned about traditional advertising shrinking, such as cinema advertising that has seen ad spend plummet since last year. Global chief creative officer of the agency that has developed Super Bowl ads for the NFL and other entities, John Patroulis, said everything has changed for 2021, and United Entertainment Group founder, CEO and president Jarrod Moses called the Super Bowl commercial landscape “strange and uncharted” in an interview with USA Today. As brands weigh the decision about whether to spend money in what NPR described as “one of the last truly mass-market opportunities for advertisers,” a deeper question remains: is Super Bowl advertising dead?

What’s driving the difference this year?

There is no surprise the ongoing pandemic impacts viewership and return on investment for ad buyers in 2021, but it’s for more reasons than the small, socially distanced Super Bowl parties and diminished in-person attendance likely to define this year’s event. It’s not only that less people may watch, but many industries have been hit extremely hard in the economic depression triggered by the pandemic and have made cuts in marketing budgets. Yet even while the economic situation has challenged more traditional industries, such as brick-and-mortar retail, there are also new emerging markets–such as online retail which jumped 30% in 2020.

Perhaps even more significantly, the context of the pandemic has made many ad buyers across industries uneasy about their ability to hit an accessible tone for audiences–no matter the creative angle of their content. What is normally a big boost for brands may quickly devolve into an unwanted audience exodus.

Perhaps even more significantly, the context of the pandemic has made many ad buyers across industries uneasy about their ability to hit an accessible tone for audiences–no matter the creative angle of their content. What is normally a big boost for brands may quickly devolve into an unwanted audience exodus.

The economic and health fallouts of the pandemic accompanied by a year of social uprisings and a highly polarized presidential election has made it difficult for ad creators to know how their content will land with mass audiences, according to Variety. “Many Americans have lost their jobs and the nation remains polarized following the 2020 presidential election, a condition that can turn even the most well-meaning of ad messages into an unpopular Twitter meme.” 

This landscape triggers more intense, complex questions for ad creators than in years past, such as whether or not audiences struggling financially would appreciate brands spending $5.5 million dollars on a few seconds of T.V. airtime. Whether for ethical or economic reasons, Budweiser has decided against these optics and pulled key ads from the event, redirecting some of those funds for Covid-19 vaccine efforts instead. That momentous decision to pull key ads for the first time in nearly 40 years marks a shocking deviation from projections made last summer about whether ad buyers would flood the market in the last weeks before the Super Bowl.

2021 Super Bowl situation poses bigger questions for the future of advertising

Aside from the dramatic circumstances of this year pushing ad buyers to unprecedented decisions, the question of mass media ad longevity in an evolving audience and technological context has been accelerating over the last couple of years. In 2019, Variety pointed out that Super Bowl ads were becoming harder to sell, in part, because the structure of mass media content conflicts with fragmenting audience values and interests in ways that can jeopardize brands: “Controversy can lurk around every corner for a Super Bowl sponsor. Because the audience is one of the broadest possible for a media event, an ill-considered commercial can strike a wrong chord very quickly. The game often draws start-up companies that are new to TV advertising and don’t understand the far reach such a spot can have.” This year is demonstrating that even carefully considered content by well-established brands can be damaging if the audience context is too broad to safeguard against harmful controversies. 

That situation has been echoed in advertising for the NFL more generally, where advertisers are asking if the NFL ad space is worth the expense. For many the answer depends on how a company defines the success of an ad, but it is clear impressions or mass audience reach alone are no longer deep enough metrics to determine ad success–including in digital spaces where Super Bowl ads run about $300,000 apiece for streaming spots. 

…advertisers are asking if the NFL ad space is worth the expense. For many the answer depends on how a company defines the success of an ad, but it is clear impressions or mass audience reach alone are no longer deep enough metrics to determine ad success–including in digital spaces where Super Bowl ads run about $300,000 apiece for streaming spots. 

Reveal Mobile released an October 2020 study demonstrating this–if the metric for success was increasing physical traffic to branded stores, ad content may not necessarily see success sponsoring the NFL. However, if companies strategize more deeply for a bigger picture understanding of success and ROI, ad campaigns with the NFL may actually prove beneficial to a brand:  “Similar to our findings when examining foot traffic to sponsors for the MLB, NHL and NBA, pro football sponsorships do not always boost foot traffic. Instead, these large brands are spending portions of their enormous ad budgets to win mindshare and brand awareness of fans in the hopes that the next time consumers are faced with a decision between that brand and its competitor, they choose the sponsor brand.”

This concept is something Budweiser has leveraged in years past, especially when it began coupling its Super Bowl presence with a robust digital strategy: “It’s not a commercial anymore; it’s a campaign, and a strong digital plan is just as important as the Super Bowl ad-buy itself, said Nick Kelly, an Anheuser-Busch spokesman. Our pre-Super Bowl commercial release strategy has become extremely valuable for gaining momentum…we’ll also have four social media war rooms around the country engaging with consumers before, during and after the game-¦” 

A similar approach seems to be behind Budweiser’s choice in 2021, as Monica Rustgi, VP of marketing, told the Associated Press the “Super Bowl step-back also won’t be long-term,” but is part of a multichannel approach where “brands aren’t limited to running ads during one event, since consumers can see them online, everywhere-¦” Rustgi suggests the traditional space is too big to disappear, but the ways in which brands like Budweiser engage that space may pivot depending on the circumstances. 

Super Bowl spend isn’t dying, it’s diversifying

These changes point to an intriguing possibility: Super Bowl ads are not dying for more established brands on traditional media platforms, but instead diversifying since they are better served by connecting with their segmented audiences in digital spaces with carefully defined success metrics. On the other hand, ad spend during the Super Bowl allows brands new to traditional, mass media advertising the opportunity to carve out the breadth of their reach if they have already diversified their messaging to connect with the values of younger audiences.

For example–alongside rising digital media company, Triller, and e-commerce businesses like Fiverr and Vroom–Chipotle will be airing a Super Bowl ad in 2021 for the first time in company history. The brand seems to believe this moment in the sun of traditional mass media will serve its broader campaign strategy, audience values, and overall growth trajectory that likely needs to measure ad success on reach, brand awareness, and social impact story. A Chipotle spokesperson told Business Insider, “‘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’…Chipotle will be using the commercial as a launchpad for new initiatives that focus on the future careers of young farmers. The company has pledged $5 million over the next five years to further their mission of supporting young farmers.”

The tone is consistent with Chipotle’s branding generally, as the company has long considered social and environmental responsibility part of its brand story. On closer analysis, Budweiser’s ad choice plays off much the same concept–driven by ethics or, at least optics, to ensure audiences are satisfied with its choices around corporate responsibility. It may be that the pandemic, social uprisings, election controversy, and brand decisions are pointing to three shifts: the importance of using deeper metrics and viewing the life journey of ad campaigns more than just individual advertising moments; the rise of a younger market with different buying values established brands must respond to; and the need for established and growing brands to diversify where ad budgets are spent. 

Even the NFL is taking note of this shift, according to Marketing Dive, by leveraging a 2-hour Tik Tok streaming program featuring Miley Cyrus to drive younger viewership. “The football league in recent years has layered more social media elements into its promotions around the big game, but the pandemic has accelerated adoption of social media -” especially for activities like livestreaming -” while delivering a steep blow to broadcast TV and cable viewership.”

As more established brands shift to social and digital media with new messaging values for gaining younger audience segments, newer brands who already have brand stories younger audiences connect with may find success broadening their market reach through more traditional, mass media platforms. In either case, diversifying audience reach and defining ad success seems to depend on what part of the market share brands already have, what their messaging has been, and where they have historically advertised their products and services. 

As Chipotle and online businesses spend in this traditional mass media space for the first time, established brands are spending in digital spaces with messages oriented to younger viewers, according to the Associated Press: “Several advertisers that typically have a large presence at the Super Bowl are also putting less of an emphasis on TV to focus on other areas of their business…rather than running an in-game spot, halftime sponsor Pepsi is in the midst of a multichannel campaign promoting headliner The Weeknd.”

The shifts cannot necessarily be read as permanent, but point to the importance of agility and visionary thinking for brands wishing to succeed in a dynamic context facing social polarization, technological advancement, and changes in generational spending all at the same time. For instance, Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communications explains that companies who ignore social responsibility refuse change at their own peril:  

“Millennials make up the fastest growing force in the marketplace. Numbering more than 80 million strong, Millennials already account for an estimated $1 trillion of U.S. current consumer spending. This sum will continue to grow exponentially as more Millennials reach peak buying power. Millennials represent the consumer market of the future, and it behooves corporations to read the tea leaves. In a study by Horizon Media’s Finger on the Pulse, “81 percent of Millennials expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship.”

Chipotle’s choice to spend ad money for the dual purpose of brand awareness and launching a social impact campaign compared with Budweiser’s choice to abstain from key traditional ad spend and instead invest in a multichannel and a social health campaign points to questions about what constitutes “good corporate citizenship” for which companies and according to which audiences? But there is no question the pandemic, social unrest, change in generational buying power, and diversity of options between traditional and digital media have accelerated the importance of this question for brands serving all kinds of audiences during the Super Bowl and beyond. 


Lineup Systems is the world's leading provider of media sales technology, representing over 6,800 media brands globally, including Gannett/USA Today, New York Times and News Corp. Amplio is Lineup's multi- channel audience monetization solution that helps media companies realize their full reader revenue potential, using data-driven intelligence to engage, nurture and monetize readers with personalized offers that increase reader revenue and reduce churn. Adpoint is Lineup's end-to-end multi-channel media advertising sales solution that helps media companies streamline operations, make better use of data, increase efficiency and boost revenue.