Why brands skipped Super Bowl ads and counterprogrammed instead

While there are several ways the ad picture for Super Bowl LV will look different than in previous years, counterprogramming is emerging as a winning tactic, thanks to a growing list of brands that have tapped into interest in the big game without spending big on a TV spot.

Even one brand that was poised to make a splash at the big game has changed its mind about the opportunity: Music video app Triller reversed course just days before the game, opting to give away $1 million on a livestream instead of airing the TV commercial it had previously planned. The move comes as major brands like Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Pepsi opt out of running ads, with ad time scooped up by companies that have been boosted by the pandemic, from delivery services to e-commerce platforms.

“The 2021 Super Bowl will be very different, with less crowds, fewer viewing parties and very different consumer sentiment. In this prevailing environment, brands will find it hard to strike the right tone and million dollar budgets too big to justify,” Sara Francis, CEO of agency Incubeta Joystick, wrote in emailed comments.


“Budweiser hit the right tone and level of branding to avoid consumer cynicism.”

Rebecca Waring

Global vice president of insight, Unruly


Historically, the Super Bowl has presented a unique opportunity for brands to reach a massive audience and be part of a nationwide conversation. But as the pandemic continues to upend daily life and accelerate pre-existing changes to sports and TV viewing, is skipping a big game ad buy the best play for brands?

There is some evidence that it might be. Budweiser last month announced plans to break a 37-year streak of Super Bowl ads, choosing instead to reallocate its ad budget to support COVID-19 vaccine efforts throughout the year. The digital short film, “Bigger Picture,” that kicked off its efforts was more effective than any Super Bowl ad of the past five years, according to video ad platform Unruly.

“Bigger Picture,” which highlights the healthcare workers who were among the first to receive the vaccine, scored higher marks than average U.S. ads across several metrics as it generated intense emotional response, increased purchase intent and caused 7 out of 10 responders to have a more favorable view of Budweiser. And while the use of generic footage caused some issues for brand recall, the video was largely successful.

“Overall, Budweiser hit the right tone and level of branding to avoid consumer cynicism,” Rebecca Waring, Unruly’s global vice president of insight, said in emailed comments.

Tapping into surging social media

While Budweiser shifted creative from TV to digital, several brands are opting for Super Bowl-adjacent campaigns that take advantage of the ever-increasing time spent on social platforms, digital channels and mobile devices.

Shut out of advertising during the game by rival and Super Bowl sponsor AB InBev, Molson Coors has tried several tactics to generate buzz without game days ads. Miller Lite took a shot at AB InBev’s Michelob Ultra, turning the one-calorie difference in the brews into a 836-character URL meant to burn off that single calorie — and giving consumers a chance to score beer money via Venmo. Thinking even further outside the box, the brewer partnered with a psychologist to craft an eight-hour “soundscape” that aims to trigger a version of a Coors ad in dreams, “Inception”-style.

Brands that have turned to Super Bowl counterprogramming in the past are ramping up their efforts this year. After repurposing the blue dot emoji with a Twitter sweepstakes in 2020, Tums returns with a Bingo game on the platform this year. Similarly, Volvo revived a safety-centered sweepstakes, giving away $2 million worth of cars — double the amount from last year.

Whether playing out on social media or intended to generate buzz on the platforms, these efforts are opting for cost-effective, insightful connections instead of a big spend for big reach strategy, according to Jamie Gilpin, CMO of social media analytics firm Sprout Social.

“While the big game is certainly an enticing moment in time to reach millions of TV viewers, it’s mostly just that: a moment in time. Brands are increasingly seeing greater impact and ROI from the authentic connections social media can offer, and marketing spends can change as a result — ads during the big game are no exception,” Gilpin wrote via emailed comments.

TikTok and Triller lead the way

As they have over the past year more widely, Super Bowl social media campaigns are migrating to TikTok and its upstart rival Triller. Along with hosting a two-hour tailgate experience headlined by Miley Cyrus, TikTok is home to a variety of brand efforts, both from in-game advertisers including Verizon, M&M’s and a handful of PepsiCo brands that look to expand the reach of their ads, and brands that aren’t running ads. Among the latter category, P&G’s Gillette and Old Spice are playing off TikTok’s “This or That” trend with their own hashtag challenge and branded effect, while Ocean Spray has reunited with Nathan Apodaca (a.k.a. @420doggface208) as it tries to recapture the magic of one of the platform’s biggest viral breakthroughs from the fall.

As for Triller, changing course and partnering with VersusGame and Maxim on a $1 million giveaway game — co-hosted by rapper 24kGoldn, who has gone viral on TikTok — recognizes that the best way to promote an app that is quickly becoming a marketing player is on the app itself.

“As we were preparing our spot for the Super Bowl, we realized the best thing we can do is use our resources and community and reward them and thank them for their support,” Bobby Sarnevesht, co-founder and executive chairman of Triller, said in a press release.

While less community-minded than Budweiser’s reallocation of its Super Bowl resources, Triller and its partners are spinning the giveaway as a bit of good news as the difficulties 2020 slowly start to fade in 2021.

“This partnership allows us to give back while leveling the playing field where anyone can win, John Vitti, CEO of VersusGame, said in the press release. “We are so excited to be able to literally change someone’s life on Sunday. After all, knowledge should be rewarded, right?”

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