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Super Bowl Ads: A Reflection Of Our Collective Mindset

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One of the things that will stand out about 2020 for me was that I had zero interest in sports, perhaps for the first time since my dad bought a big Motorola TV back in 1959. I suppose that the reason has something to do with the absence of real fans at the games. Before 2020, baseball had always been my sports passion (it’s one of the few things that I agree with George Will about), and I used to love to sit down and watch the weekend’s featured game on TV. Football on the other hand has merely been gap filler for me – and in the past, I just marked the days between the Super Bowl and when baseball pitchers reported for Spring training in Arizona and Florida. But regardless of all of that, this weekend I decided it was time to sit down and watch a game.

Full disclosure – I WAS an Oakland Raider “generation 1” fan, and went to Super Bowl XI back in 1977. That’s when I found out that at least from a television perspective, the Super Bowl was much more about the ads than the game itself. There were no big screens throughout the stadium then (in fact, the game happened at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, a decidedly old-fashioned venue replete with faux-Roman architecture and very little in the way of modern distractions). Between plays, the players would mill about seemingly aimlessly… then the whistle would blow, and everyone would snap back into action. I asked the guy next to me, “what the hell is this?”, and he told me – “TV ads!”

Even back in 1977, the Super Bowl was “four hours of television and eleven minutes of action”, just as Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson snarked on last Saturday’s broadcast. So as I watched the Super Bowl this year along with 92 million other people, half of my interest was in this year’s ads. And as in prior years, I looked forward to the reading all the Monday morning quarterbacking – not of the game, but of the ads. My home newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has a not-to-be-missed review every Monday-after. Of course, the Chron isn’t alone; for example, again this year the Washington Post expressed its opinions, UK’s Guardian had its picks, and even the stodgy Wall Street Journal had a point of view.

Ads of course are supposed to sharpen our appetites for whatever the advertiser is selling, but in this year of the COVID blues, the ads seemed decidedly different – more group therapy than anything else. From the utterly goofy GMC/Cadillac commercial featuring Will Ferrell to a somber Bruce Springsteen, to the weirdly creepy “Alexa’s body” from Amazon, few advertisers wanted to point at the elephant in the room – the coronavirus and how has changed people’s behavior.

A couple of advertisers did directly address what a lousy year 2020 was. The first was from Budweiser, pushing its Seltzer Lemonade product, and it reminded me of RSR’s opinion that “whatever direction a company is going in, COVID is pushing it to go there faster.” Ansheuser-Busch InBev is doubling down on its push into flavored seltzer products with its lemon-flavored products. Stating the obvious, the ad referenced what a “lemon” 2020 was… and you can take it from there. The other one was from Jeep and featured Bruce Springsteen, imploring Americans to “meet in the middle” (in this case, literally in the middle, in Lebanon, Kansas). Again stating the obvious, the ad was an not-so-subtle reference to the contentious and deeply partisan dialogues of 2020 that culminated in the riot at the US Capitol last month.

However, the general tone was lighthearted in an almost exaggerated way, looking ahead to better times. According to Variety, “Dozens of Super Bowl advertisers ignored the coronavirus pandemic that grips the nation, and looked instead to the better times they hope will arrive in weeks to come”.

That kind of enforced optimism isn’t unique to the Super Bowl ads. Retailers and the industries that support them are looking for the bright side too. Take for example the real estate business. Colliers International, a company that advises retail estate owners and investors, recently projected a kind-of return to normal: “The retail market will recalibrate next year. In 2020, most retail spending has shifted online, but a new report from Colliers International predicts that online retail sales will decrease 8.5% in 2021, while in-store retail sales will increase 5.9%.”

Another recent article from the real estate world claimed that “Though the pandemic led to sharp declines in foot traffic, 60% of CRE <commercial real estate> leaders and 55% of retailers expect a return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.” And consulting giant McKinsey expects a modified return to normal: “As consumer confidence returns, so will spending, with ‘revenge shopping’ sweeping through sectors as pent-up demand is unleashed. That has been the experience of all previous economic downturns.”

You get the gist: hope springs eternal. People crave a return to normalcy. But RSR’s take is that we need to look at the most recent shock, the Great Recession of 2008-12, to understand what is likely to happen in a post-COVID world (or if you want to go back further, think about pre-WWII vs. post-WWII). Consumers are not going back to 2019. While they may eventually enjoy carefree shopping again, I doubt that people will give up on the conveniences that they adopted during the pandemic. We’re all looking forward to getting our lives back, but we’ve discovered things about ourselves and what’s really important in our lives.

So, just like Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady said after the game, “Oh yeah, we’re coming back!”, we’ll all get back to the business of living sooner rather than later. The collective thinking is that the end of the pandemic is closer than the beginning of it was. But just like Brady did in Super Bowl LV, shopping will come back with a different look and feel.

Newsletter Articles February 9, 2021
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