A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 7, 2021

Why Are So Many Super Bowl Ads Featuring People Without Covid Masks?

The Super Bowl is escapism at any time, but especially this year, so humor and fantasy will prevail in ads. 

And interestingly, research this year has revealed that unless an ad is actually about masks, viewers tend not to notice them. JL

Robert Klara reports in Ad Week:

Super Bowl ads were never known for their strict portrayals of reality. Conspicuously absent from most of these multimillion-dollar efforts are face masks. "Brands are working hard to avoid any appearance of partisanship on the Super Bowl. “All of these ads have been designed not offend Democrats or Republicans.” For millions, the Big Game means four or more hours of partying, not a time to reflect on a contagious virus. (Plus) unless the spot in question was about actual masks, consumers tended to look past them. Brands don’t want to disrupt ads with a feature that few people will notice anyway. “The Super Bowl is an escape. There’s license for commercials to be in an escape from the real world.”

Super Bowl ads were never known for their strict portrayals of reality. Anyone who recalls Danny DeVito as an M&M (2018), the E-Trade babies buying stocks from their high chairs (2008) or the unnerving hybrid creature known as PuppyMonkeyBaby (Mountain Dew, 2016) can attest to this.

At first glance, then, the crop of ads released in advance of Super Bowl 55 this Sunday feels refreshingly normal. They’re full of backyards, family kitchens and lots of celebrity faces.

Only when you look a bit closer does the feeling of unreality seep in—not in the form of what you see, but what you don’t.

Conspicuously absent from most of these multimillion-dollar efforts are face masks—this despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised Americans to wear them since April, that the Biden administration is currently weighing a plan to mail face masks to every American and Dr. Anthony Fauci revealed earlier this week that he often wears two masks instead of one.

But good luck spotting any of those baby-blue N95s amid the cowboys, pro athletes, dogs and movie stars in this year’s ads. Garth and Wayne hawking Uber Eats? Maskless. Those Weather Tech folks hard at work in their factory? Not a mask among them. Even M&M’s scene on a commercial airliner—crowded coach, no less—shows passengers with their faces uncovered.

And why is that? While it may be tempting to criticize brands for a perceived oversight, the reasons for the maskfree game we’re headed for turn out to be many and nuanced.

Rule No. 1: Don’t discuss politics

For starters, there’s timing. America is only 30 days along from a Capitol insurrection that proved, if nothing else, how politically divided the country is. And while wearing masks may have started out as a public health measure, they morphed rapidly into a signal for one’s political affiliation.

“There’s no question that brands are working so hard to avoid any appearance of partisanship on the Super Bowl,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “All of these ads have been designed very carefully to not offend either side, the Democrats or Republicans.”

Not only are masks not shown or mentioned in most ads, he continued, “there’s no mention of any of the big issues facing this country,” he said. A contested election? Black Lives Matter? The 6.7% unemployment rate? Not in this year’s ads. “All of those issues, which are major issues, they’re not directly discussed,” he said.

But Calkins also pointed out that while masks may be absent in these spots, Covid-19 is not. The pandemic receives subtle nods in the form of the messaging (Bud Light Seltzer reminding us that “2020 handed us all those lemons”) and, more noticeably, the settings.

I think we’re alone now

It’s probably no accident that Scott’s staged its spot in the all-American backyard, a safe locale because it’s outdoors and likely to include only family. Similarly, in Doritos’ spot, actor Matthew McConaughey (who endures no end of travails as Flat Matthew) is shown mostly by himself or with his dog and (with the exception of that coffee-shop scene) not within microbial spitting distance of others.

“In most cases, Matthew is on his own as Flat Matthew,” said Rachel Ferdinando, CMO of Frito-Lay North America. “So, in that regard, we’re trying to be authentic to the situation.”

Similarly, in the spot for Frito-Lay’s Cheetos, Ashton Kutcher and wife Mila Kunis are (save for a cameo from Shaggy) alone at home with the cat. Who’d expect them to mask up?

“We were careful not to have any big, large crowds,” said PepsiCo Beverages North America CMO Greg Lyons. “That was part of the creative process this year.” Owing to set restrictions, big groups “would have been very difficult to shoot anyway. We wanted to be sensitive.”

Lyons added another factor to his explanation, one that could easily be extended to most brands advertising maskfree in this year’s game. “The Super Bowl is an escape,” he said. “Showing masks, especially if it’s two people at home like Ashton and Mila, that would kind of bum people out. So, there’s a little bit of license for commercials to be in an escape from the real world.”

The great escape

Lyons pointed to a time-honored truth about Super Bowl ads: Vérité was never a standard in the past, and it’s not one now. For millions of Americans, the Big Game means four or more hours of partying, not a time to reflect on a contagious virus.

“It appears most brands are opting for escapism with humor and other emotional signals that transcend the pandemic, such as empowerment,” observed Sammi Scharninghausen, brand analyst for ad analytics firm Ace Metrix. “Put simply: While face masks are a symbol of today’s reality, they haven’t fit the narrative or the tone being set in teasers so far.”

During the summer, Ace studied the role of face masks in advertising and found that, unless the spot in question was about actual masks, consumers tended to look past them. The recall of features including character, story line and even background music was stronger than the presence of masks. So it could well be that brands don’t want to disrupt ad aesthetics with a feature that few people will notice anyway.

Margo Kahnrose, CMO of digital advertising technology platform Kenshoo, said that while it’s true that consumers expect brands to take principled stands on social issues, the stakes are high with 100 million people watching. “That’s forcing most brands to choose a direction: safe, escapist humor that reflects our collective hope for better times ahead without saying a word about it,” she said.

The Super Bowl, Calkins added, “is a distraction from your normal life. The last thing that people want to see on the Super Bowl is reminders of the pandemic and reminders of all the problems that we’re dealing with as a country. The Super Bowl is a bit of an idealized world, and the advertising really reflects that.”

Blink and you’ll miss the mask

Yet, even within that highly idealized world, eagle-eyed viewers will spot a few face masks lurking around—notably in Tide’s spot.

At Procter & Gamble headquarters, the brass took considerable pains to depict what communications manager Henry Molski termed “a lifelike depiction of an average American teenager in 2021.” The spot shows the adolescent putting his Jason Alexander hoodie through its paces and, while the face covering might be down around his neck much of the time, it is there. (The men playing basketball in the gym are wearing masks, too.)

“We don’t expect many of our viewers to catch all of these subtle safety cues, as we thought it would be important to draw attention to the light-hearted pace and tone of our spot,” Molski told Adweek. “However, the small cues should serve as reminder that it is important to follow public safety guidelines as long as health officials advise.”

Focusing on the future

As for the vast majority of spots that show characters enjoying a maskfree life, it’s no accident that a number of these scenes are meant to evoke a post-pandemic time that (assuming enough vaccines find their way around) might actually get here. That, at least in the case of Anheuser-Busch’s “Let’s Grab a Beer” spot, is the idea.

The minute-long spot showing people bonding and commiserating over a brewski is, according to A-B’s senior director of marketing communications Lacey Clifford, “a timeless ad taking place either in past memories or a hoped-for future.”

Similarly, she continued, “the Bud Light spots are pure fantasy, taking place either in the future or a fantastical reality.” (Clifford added that Budweiser’s spot, “reflective of the resiliency of America during the past year,” does indeed show workers in face coverings.)

Petur Workman, global brand and growth officer for San Diego creative agency Do Not Disturb, observed that setting a Super Bowl ad in the hoped-for future isn’t a cop out. It is, after all, what most of us have been daydreaming about for months now.

Many of the Big Game ads, he said, are “trying to get people to understand that we’re going to get back to a normal time. It might not be for a while, but [brands] want to create that atmosphere of comfort, at least with your sphere, your social friends or your family that you see on a consistent basis. That’s where I think brands are really going.”


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