Imagine Tom Brady, the winningest Super Bowl quarterback of all time, deciding to sit out the big game on Sunday.
Budweiser, the Tom Brady of Super Bowl advertisers, has benched itself this week for the first time in 37 years. Brady still thinks he can win the big one. Apparently, Bud doesn't.
I think that's a loss for our culture.
Yes, there is a competition for Super Bowl ads: the USA Today Ad Meter, an online survey in which viewers rank each spot airing in the big game. Since the Ad Meter's inception 32 years ago, the King of Beers has reigned supreme.
Eight times Bud's commercials have scored highest, the most of any brand in Ad Meter's history. That's two more Super Bowl victories, in fact, than Brady has put up.
During my career as an ad executive, I helped my agency, Campbell Mithun, make four Super Bowl commercials in the 2000s for client H&R Block. We emulated Bud's techniques. We envied its success. We admired its creativity.
Over the decades, Budweiser's Super Bowl ads have imprinted themselves on popular culture, glorifying iconic American animals like Clydesdales and Dalmatians, personifying crustaceans and reptiles and saluting American pride and patriotism.
In 2003, we created a pretty good spot featuring Willie Nelson and his tax problems. Bud smoked us and the field. It won the Ad Meter competition that year with its highest-ranked spot ever featuring a Zebra, the unlikely official of an equally unlikely Clydesdale football game, with its head stuck in an instant replay booth.
Cut to two cowboys perched on a split rail fence watching the action. "This referee's a jackass," one says. "No, I believe he's a zebra," deadpans the other.
My favorite Bud Super Bowl ad appeared more than 25 years ago and became an advertising classic: Three frogs resting on lily pads in a dark, moonlit swamp croaking, "BUD … WISE … ER." It didn't rank the highest in the Ad Meter survey. But when Campbell Mithun commissioned a survey later that year asking kids aged 6-to-18 to name their favorite ad, Bud's frogs ranked first.
Given my personal history, I felt sad and disappointed when I read that Budweiser was bailing on the big game. Bud's public statement said that it was "reallocating its media investment" to raise awareness about the COVID-19 vaccine. Based on my experience working with big clients, that's a euphemism for, "We're chickening out."
Sure, this year presents a challenge to a brand like Bud, one that represents the average American Joe. We just witnessed a national crisis and lie in the middle of another. How does it gauge the audience's mood during tough and uncertain times and set the right tone for its message?
Bud has been there before, as were we, in the fall of 2001.
Unlike Bud, we were rookies, making our first ever Super Bowl commercial. Three days before our production was to begin, the twin towers went down. We had to scrap our concept and, at no small cost to our client, start over. We worried — a lot. What frame of mind will the country be in, we asked ourselves? Will it be ready to laugh? How do we avoid being a downer? Should we bail?
We stayed the course. So did Bud.
Our concept relied on understated humor and the directing talents of Joel and Ethan Coen, who made it quirky. It was OK but not in Bud's league.
That year Budweiser gave the country exactly what it needed, a soulful 60-second tribute to 9/11 and liberty. The sturdy Clydesdales hauled their blazing red beer wagon across the Brooklyn bridge, then bowed in unison to the Statue of Liberty. The commercial, a top five finisher that year, was called Respect.
Advertising is always commercial, often shallow and mostly ephemeral. But year in and year out we have come to expect Budweiser Super Bowl advertising that cracks us up, makes us smile and gives us hope. Our culture could use it now more than ever.
Steve Wehrenberg is a former CEO of Campbell Mithun and professor of strategic communication at the University of Minnesota.