What to expect from the Super Bowl commercials

Feb. 3, 2021 - Leila Ugincius

On Sunday, the nation will collectively experience a much-needed respite from a year in pandemic bizarro world. For a few hours, life might feel close to normal as we celebrate America’s unofficial holiday, the Super Bowl. 

Some things will obviously be different. At the game itself — held this year at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida — 22,000 fans will be in attendance, about 33% of the stadium’s capacity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines on the safest way to enjoy the Super Bowl this year. You won’t be reaching into a communal bowl for a handful of chips at a big watch party, but you can still enjoy a cold one while watching the game — and of course, the vaunted commercials.

“The Super Bowl will be different in many ways, but it will be familiar enough to take you to where you need to be for those couple of hours,” said Vann Graves, executive director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. “The pandemic has changed us in many ways and how we live our lives. Social unrest has done the same. The Super Bowl will bring a little bit of the familiar back and a little bit of the joy back. I think we deserve this as a country.” 

So what can we expect to see during the commercial breaks?

“I don't think anyone wants to be like, ‘We're in a really sad time, America.’ You know what I mean? ’Cause it's the Super Bowl,” said Scott Beard, a freelance advertising strategist and adjunct professor of mass communications at VCU. “Advertisers needed to find a way to show up in a Super Bowl that's going to be very different than other ones, because they're not going to have 100,000 fans in the stands.”

Additionally, commercials take months to develop, so advertisers were working blind this year. They didn’t know if there would be a Super Bowl, what it would be like, or if there would be watch parties. Plus, Beard said, advertisers are walking a fine line because no one wants to be reminded that we're living in a socially distant society. 

“A lot of people want to come back to when we could be happy and not worrying about things like that,” he said. “I think there could be a line, though, over whether it's pandering. Probably 50% of the commercials are going to do it well. And 50% of commercials are going to be doing the same thing as everyone else: ‘Even though we can't be together, we can still enjoy [this product].’” 

One interesting trend, Graves noted, will be who doesn’t show up during the commercials. Major players such as Coke, Audi and Lay’s are opting out this year. Perhaps most missed will be Budweiser.  

“I don't know when the last time there wasn't a [Budweiser] Clydesdale in the Super Bowl,” Graves said. 

However, you can expect to see a glut of familiar faces, with celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Matthew McConaughey and Tracy Morgan all making appearances, Graves said. “You're going to still have the vibe of the Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl is the one thing that truly brings people together in this country,” Graves said. “You know, politics may be divisive, even the sports teams you pick may be divisive. The pandemic has just made it hard for folks. And the idea of the Super Bowl is one way for people to commune with their people, with their families. Everyone's watching the same thing at the same time and enjoying it. 

“There's something for everyone. People expect great commercials. They expect great entertainment from their commercials. And we need it more. We need this moment in time more than we have in a very long time.”