Super Bowl Ad Rookies Hope to Seize Field as Some Big Sponsors Exit

The prospect of putting an ad in the Super Bowl for the first time might make some executives nervous, but not John Lagerling.

Madison Avenue regulars know they can game out the Big Game by getting consumer reaction to their ads before they put them on TV, or analyzing them with reams of data. Mercari, an online marketplace that’s running its first Super Bowl commercial on CBS next Sunday, isn’t doing too much of that, says Lagerling, the company’s U.S. CEO. “We didn’t do a lot of focus groups,” he acknowledges in an interview. “We went with our gut and heart.”

The Super Bowl is TV’s biggest annual event, and regularly attracts a horde of the world’s most popular brands.  But this year, it may rely more heavily on the actions of advertisers who have never stepped into this particular arena. With PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch InBev sidelining ads from their flagship brands this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, a large group of rookies have more opportunity to seize the day for themselves.

“We will have a lot of advertisers who are doing this for the first time, and that tends to make things interesting,” says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Sometimes, they get into a little trouble.”

With little more than a week to go before CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl LV from Tampa, Florida, nine different Super Bowl ad rookies have made themselves known. They range from marketing giants like Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies diapers, Scotts Miracle-Gro and Unilever’s Hellman’s mayonnaise to relative upstarts like the aforementioned Mercari; online auto retailer Vroom; freelance marketplace Fiverr; and delivery service DoorDash. CBS has been seeking around $5.5 million for a 30-second spot in this year’s event, slated for a February 7 broadcast from Tampa, Fla.

The 20201 rookie list is already 29% bigger than the seven first-timers who joined the Super Bowl ad roster in 2020 — and that figure still has room to grow. Two of last year’s newbies were the Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg political campaigns, an unusual category to get tangled up with the gridiron classic. The remaining five were Facebook, Walmart, Little Caesars, Sabra, and Quibi. So far, none of those names have announced a Super Bowl return (there’s little chance for a new visit from Quibi; the short-format streaming-video service has gone out of business). Announcements from other frosh may be in the offing.

A handful of the newbies aren’t going to be shy. Hellman’s is relying on comedienne Amy Schumer to catch viewer attention. “The ‘Big Game’ is a big food moment,” says Ben Crook, senior marketing director for Hellmann’s North America, responding via email. “Amy is passionate about helping people and also about food, which is why we knew she would feel a connection to what we are doing.” DoorDash has already gotten some traction with a Super Bowl ad that features actor Daveed Diggs and “Sesame Street” mainstays Cookie Monster, Rosita, Grover and Big Bird (the ads also marks the first time any Sesame character has entered the ad lineup).

Some new sponsors can’t walk away from what they feel is a quintessential moment to talk about their goods and services.

Executives at Indeed, the online job-listings website, decided to get into the Super Bowl just three months ago, says Jennifer Warren, vice president of global brand marketing at the company. “We were working on a new brand campaign in response to the tenor of the world we are living in,” where the pandemic has forced many people out of their jobs. “We said the Super Bowl would be the perfect launching ground,” she adds, noting executives were surprised to find that CBS had room for the new spot toward the end of the first quarter, even though the day was drawing close.

Indeed seems to have taken all the right steps.  Some rookies, however, have tripped.

In 1999, the athletic-shoe chain Just For Feet ran a Super Bowl spot that showed a group of white men tracking down a Kenyan runner and forcing Nike shoes on to his feet. Viewers and critics cringed, and the retailer went so far as to sue the ad agency that created the spot, Saatchi & Saatchi, before declaring bankruptcy.

There have been other questionable moments. In 2011, online coupon broker Groupon ran a first-time spot that made reference to the plight of Tibet, spurring furious social-media backlash. GoDaddy launched years of Super Bowl appearances with a 2005 effort on Fox depicting a buxom woman having a wardrobe accident in the midst of a congressional hearing. The spot spurred debate about maintaining standards during the Super Bowl’s commercial breaks.

Even the most experienced advertisers see the need for caution during their first tour on the field. “This is like launching a new product,” says Chris Brandt, the chief marketing officer of Chipotle, which will enter the Super Bowl with an ambitious spot he hopes sparks conversation about food sustainability, farming and the environment. “No matter what you are doing, there is so much scrutiny around it.”

Few executives believe the absence of ads for Pepsi, Coke and Budweiser give them an advantage. They will still have to contend with a lineup that includes big names like M&Ms, Tide, Bud Light, General Motors, Mountain Dew, and Pringles.

Huggies doesn’t want its diaper pitch to fall apart in a critical moment. Sure, it’s got a clever hook: its commercial will feature footage of Super Bowl Sunday newborns, captured by families. The company will donate 10,000 diapers to hospitals helping share the stories in the ad. Huggies is working with the agency Droga5, which in the past has helped capture attention for Chobani and The New York Times during big TV events.

“No matter what brands show up, this remains the biggest stage in marketing,” says Rebecca Dunphey, president of personal care at Kimberly-Clark North America, “and you have to do something big to stand out.”

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