February 8, 2021 5 min read
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The Super Bowl presents one of the biggest TV advertising opportunities. While many people tune in to watch the game itself, the ads— which cost $5.5. million this year—are equally important.
What did viewers see on Sunday? Fewer fans in the stands and big-name advertisers like Budweiser, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola sat out on their typical ad buys.
But there was one other noticeably missing piece: face masks. Why did brands stay away from masks, and will a brand’s choice to include or exclude masks impact consumer sentiment?
The evolution of masks in marketing
Early in the pandemic, many brands scrambled to include masks in their marketing messaging to appear as responsible corporate citizens. While this initially showed that marketers were conscious of the severity of the health crisis, when the issue became politically polarizing, the decision became: Do we show masks or not?
Brands began migrating away from explicitly featuring them, instead subtly showing masks, only including them in messaging about corporate social responsibility (CSR), or excluding them entirely. This trend was particularly evident in this year’s Super Bowl spots.
Data indicates consumers don’t take notice when actors in ads don’t wear masks. But when the content shows masks, viewers sit up and pay attention.
Because of this extra scrutiny, companies are taking the low-risk way out, which seems clear by the absence of masks in this year’s ads. The exception was Tide’s ad, which had a mask (albeit pulled down). If viewers don’t notice when masks are excluded, a brand won’t ruffle any feathers, effectively making it a safer approach.
If a brand chooses to include face coverings in their ads, it must be authentic to their DNA. At the beginning of the pandemic, mask messaging felt on-brand for very few. Fast forward to today. Some companies have found ways to feature them as a natural part of their narrative, while others have shied away from the topic altogether.
Why brands have moved away from masks
Brands are still figuring out how to incorporate masks without making a statement. In many cases, they’re avoiding the risk by not showing them at all. Unless a company requires customers to wear masks—like Costco and Publix have done—including them in marketing content may turn people off, given how politicized they’ve become.
What’s more, Super Bowl ads, in particular, are a very different animal than print or still-frame digital ads. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a video is much more dynamic. Showing emotions in a video ad is critical but challenging with covered faces. If a brand is pushing out a message about food, drinks, or makeup, those aren’t products you can easily enjoy with a mask on, so incorporating one feels unnatural and detracts from the brand’s light-hearted approach.
What are brands doing to make sure their messaging doesn’t look anti-mask, even if it doesn’t include any masks? They’re changing the backdrop.
Most Super Bowl LV ads were set in backyards or spaces where the assumption is that everyone there is in the same bubble, making masks unnecessary. This is an ingenious strategy that removes the need for the “to mask or not to mask” debate.
How consumers react to masks
If done right, masks’ inclusion can be powerful, but this move implies that recommending mask-wearing is a part of a larger CSR strategy. In taking this approach, the strategy can’t be limited to an ad but must include other elements that make sense for the brand.
For example, Klaviyo customer Hedley and Bennett began manufacturing masks and not only included that in their messaging, but also shifted to a one-for-one model, donating one mask to essential workers for each sold. This move was not only a marketing shift but also laddered up to a more prominent brand message.
While some brands are approaching mask-wearing head-on through their customer communications, not producing a Super Bowl ad at all can also be powerful.
Budweiser’s move to reallocate marketing dollars (usually spent on Super Bowl ads) to vaccine awareness and access was a great example of a brand sending a message without an ad at all.
If a brand is selling masks, it must be careful to avoid fear-mongering and instead focus on safety. At the same time, if a company doesn’t sell masks, it mustn’t include masks in its ad in a veiled effort to grab mindshare unless it’s willing to walk the walk and promote similar policies within its company or stores.
What the ads indicate
Whether brands will bring masks back into ads after the Super Bowl remains to be seen. While the absence of mask messaging may fall under the radar, flip-flopping between pushing mask-wearing and saying nothing will surely get noticed, and it can inevitably hurt a brand’s reputation and consumer sentiment for the long-term. No matter what a company decides, its marketing messages must be authentic and consistent with its brand.