The end-of-year holidays may be the shopping season of the year, but the biggest advertising event of the year is just around the corner.
Super Bowl LV won't be typical, however, as uncertainty regarding the coronavirus and months of boiling racial tension have kept advertisers wary of whether and how to market a product during a game that may or may not take place.
Last year's broadcaster had sold all 77 available slots by the previous Thanksgiving for millions of dollars per 30-second slot, for a whopping total of $489 million. As of mid-December, dozens of spots remain open, according to the New York Times.
Advertisers are understandably wary. Making a lighthearted advertisement could appear tone-deaf, with hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from the coronavirus.
Making a somber advertisement could simply be depressing.
Professional football has split its fan base in recent years. Where sports were once a fairly apolitical arena at which Americans could congregate without rancor, they have of late turned into yet another cultural flashpoint.
According to a study by the ad agency Oberland and its research wing Suzy, brands are more at risk of public backlash if they remain silent than if they proactively speak against racism. The agency is predicting that many of 2021's Super Bowl ads will focus on racial justice, pivoting as many teams and players have to publicly support social causes they care about.
As far back as 2016, a Rasmussen Report study linked a decline in viewership to racial protests and demonstrations. The NFL rebounded from a 14.9 million average viewership low in 2017 in the following years, but is still well below its 2010 high of nearly 18 million, according to Statista, a data-gathering site.
The unrest in 2020, coupled with sharp divides over pandemic policy and a presidential election, have further polarized the country.
Analysts have said the commercials will sell, showing optimism despite initial slowness. Whether those commercials dig harder into social issues or revert to the lighthearted entertainment they once provided remains to be seen. Proceeding with caution is the only option available.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE