In a reversal from years past, fewer Super Bowl ads are expected to be released before the game on Feb. 4, partly to preserve surprise, and also to avert the risk of consumer backlash in a politically charged year for the NFL, say observers.
By Thursday, only five Super Bowl LII commercials had been pre-released online — for Pringles, Groupon, Febreze, Stella Artois and a joint ad promotion for Lexus and the movie, “Black Panther.” In 2017, 36 out of 49 Super Bowl ads were pre-released, many of those weeks before.
The Super Bowl pregame ad parade has become something of a tradition in recent years, as well as an entertaining diversion in its own right. In return, advertisers build buzz for their expensive in-game effort along with social media attention which generated so-called “free impressions.”
Many advertisers could still rush out their ads at the last minute, as they did in 2017, but observers point to shifts in 2018. Advertisers “are trying to take back the surprise and excitement of 100 million people watching in the exact same moment,” says Madison Wharton, global chief production officer for New York-based ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners. She adds that any potential consumer blowback against a pre-release “is another reason to wait.” Last year, Audi generated a stir over its “Daughter” pre-release, about pay equality, as did first-time Super Bowl advertiser 84 Lumber over a commercial about the proposed border wall.
The NFL itself has become an unwitting wedge issue over players who kneel in support of Black Lives Matter, and President Donald Trump’s repeated censure of both them and the league. TV ratings declined sharply from a year ago — “Sunday Night Football,” TV’s top-rated program lost 11 percent of its viewers — while NBC has yet to sell out its commercial inventory in next week’s game. Network officials said in mid-January that “under” ten spots remain to be sold. (First quarter 30-second ads have been priced at $5 million.) The game is typically sold out by this point.
“There is a good bit of risk aversion” among advertisers this year, says Charles Taylor, professor of marketing, and marketing and business law at Villanova University’s School of Business. “There isn’t one better example of why not to get into political issues or take risks than the NFL itself. Their ratings are down ten percent last year, and [the kneeling controversy] undeniably is a factor.”
The Super Bowl is still expected to attract 100 million viewers, “but what if people don’t care,” says Derek Rucker, professor or marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and moderator of a closely followed annual Super Bowl ad effectiveness panel there. “If you get a ten percent downshift, you’re talking ten million viewers. These are massive numbers.”
Of the handful of ads and teases released so far, none court controversy. The Pringles ad features former “Saturday Night Live” star Bill Hader “wowing” over the various flavors of Pringles chips. The Febreze ad is about someone named “Dave” whose “bleep don’t stink,” per the tagline.
While most Super Bowl LII commercials are expected to be pointedly apolitical — they usually are — Wharton suggested another rationale for holding off on an early release this year: A number of ads will indeed make statements, like 2017’s Airbnb “We Accept,” which was widely interpreted as a rebuke of Trump’s travel ban.
“Certainly some will address the current climate,” she says. “If you want your brand to connect to humanity and to find a purpose in this divided time than sometimes it is absolutely OK to make a statement. An ad with kneeling involved? I hope so. That would be amazing.”