In 1984, Apple aired a 1-minute ad during a break in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII that was designed to 'stop America in its tracks'.
A gray, nonlinear nightmare sequence — plain weird, it worked. Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie-like production values and high concept message stunned audiences and tweaked America's biggest sporting event into its greatest advertising showcase.
The Super Bowl is now a cultural beacon on the long salt flats after Christmas and before spring. Just as you don't need to love sci-fi to watch Star Wars, you now don't need to love sports to watch the Super Bowl. Even people that avoid the game can't help but hear about it. Its chatter spreads through the culture at the speed of a virus.
Unlike any other TV event, the adverts play a big part in the experience. Super Bowl adverts are marquee events, not irritants. 67% of people rank ads as one of their three favorite parts of the game, trailing behind only the game itself at 71%. Super Bowl ads should put on a show. Give the audiences a little entertainment along with the product shilling.
With spots going for around $5 million per 30-seconds, the messaging picked by advertisers becomes a cultural bellwether that sets the tone for the rest of the year. Advertisers operating on a smaller scale will harvest the messaging from the Super Bowl as inspiration and a template to inform campaigns that stretch long into the year, long beyond the halftime show.
But, this year, the prevailing mood is hard to judge. With most people locked in a kind of stasis, waiting for positive news of the pandemic, advertisers need to tread carefully. The wrong messaging now is not just $5 million down the drain, it's a huge dent in brand reputation on the world’s biggest stage.
Spare us the hope and string sections
If there was anything advertisers could agree on was that their audiences were saturated with 'inspirational' messages. A year into the pandemic, no-one is going to feel particularly uplifted by a stirring dispatch from Doritos.
Speaking to Digiday, Ryan Ku, head of strategy and brand innovation at Eleven put it clearly.
"Any attempt to step around the fire engulfing the American zeitgeist using entertainment, spectacle, or absurdity would be, again, an easy flashpoint to an angry debate regarding tone-deafness or lack of awareness."
Audiences have had a year of this. We know the times are uncertain, and that Mountain Dew is in this with us, together. In 2021, it's time for advertising to swerve pathos and get back to the usual drawing board of escapism, consumerism, and spiking volleyballs in the sun.
To twist the optics from a sad, crowd-less, half-event, brands will want to insulate their messaging from the wider world at the moment.
The audience wants to pretend as if this is normal and brands will want to latch onto this through humor and celebrity. After all, is it really a crisis if Dominos are on their way and David Beckham is doing skills on the TV? In a list of brand deals, Cheetos have roped in Shaggy, Doritos have Matthew McConaughey, and Squarespace have had Dolly Parton re-imagine 9-5 into 5-9 to promote the idea of working on passion projects. These familiar faces bring with them a history of signs and signifiers that can lend depth to slim concepts.
Through times of hardship advertising and the products behind them have represented a certain level of escape. If anyone should be telling us everything is going to be ok, it should be these ads. Instead of picking through the thorns of wider culture, the theme of advertising in 2021 is likely to focus on finding joy again, rather than hope.
Actions will speak louder than words
Companies know we are at capacity with pandemic messages of hope and unity. But there are brands that can't ignore it. For travel, entertainment, and other sectors, ignoring the pandemic and its effects in messaging on this scale would be noticeably strange.
To add credibility and avoid skirting past the elephant in the room, brands that are closely aligned with societal issues will have to put their money where their mouths are. This means messaging led by tangible charity initiatives to mark themselves apart from companies that are being seen as 'all talk'.
Tired of technology
The ads of recent years have had a strange focus on technology and its growing presence in our lives. In 2019, Pringles focused their ad on a sentient digital assistant, lamenting that as a machine, it was unable to partake in the wonderful human experience of stacking multiple flavors of Pringles together.
Amazon misread the room and imagined its Alexa embedded into everything, capturing a more sense of genuine fear than playful self-awareness that was intended. But, after a year of communicating through technology almost exclusively, it doesn't seem so fun now. Alexa, Zoom, screens, they're all too familiar to connect meaningfully now.
The tone is more likely to shift back to human connections, touch, and joy. Expect to see fewer brands leaning heavily on the idea that we can't do anything without technology. More organic, natural scenes that aim to make life seem simple.
Small-scale production values
This year's challenges are not just in the messaging. There are serious logistical issues that are keeping brands from getting involved with Super Bowl mania. International shooting, huge production crews, and a cast of thousands are not possible this year. Ideas and concepts have to be scaled back to a feasible COVID-safe production. Digital effects, heavy use of celebrity, and a simple joke will be a common format.
Don't expect to see mini-movies like Apple's '1984' in this year's crop or advertising as a whole until we step firmly into the renaissance era of the pandemic.
But, to see where advertising messaging is at right now and to get some ideas for campaigns and tones that will hit with audiences in 2021, tune into the Super Bowl and see what everyone is talking about the next day.