- Photo credit: Phillip Goldsberry // Unsplash
This year’s Super Bowl will be a Super Bowl like no other. Thanks to a year of intense suffering, extreme inequality and loss, the paradigm of 2021 is different for advertisers – and what will set the winners apart from the losers has everything to do with the subversion of power.
An overwhelming theme of the pandemic has been acts of – and appetite for – the renegotiation of power away from the establishment. We’ve seen KPop Stans organise to thwart police efforts in tracking down BLM protestors. We’ve sought out the actual businesses behind Amazon storefronts to make sure they get the full cut. We’ve examined our relationship with celebrities and their privilege. And – I promised it in the title – we’re currently witnessing one of the biggest challenges to the institutionalised way in which value is manipulated, as Reddit vigilantes join together to pump up the share price of GameStop (a stock that Wall Street has a long history of ‘shorting’) to out-game Hedge Funds in favor of the masses.
At its heart, this is a story of the subversion and redistribution of power – and many, particularly the young, have been eating it up (the rich, seasoned to taste). It’s this dynamic that’s laying the groundwork for a new set of rules that determine whose Super Bowl this really is.
If these new rules are centred on renegotiating who has power, then it’s not 'Big Marketing' - a dynamic many of them have clearly intuited, as Audi and Coca-Cola step aside 'to ensure [they] are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times'. Others, if they appear, understand that they are required to act as civic entities: platforms for broader society beyond themselves.
Verizon is hosting a concert to benefit small businesses, for example, while Budweiser is pivoting spend to vaccine-awareness. Others still are picking brands more representative of 'the people' (and more closely aligned with the home, to which we’ve all become more accustomed), such as Mountain Dew or Doritos, to act as the mouthpieces of their portfolio.
But these ‘greats’ are merely set to be white noise.
The real MVPs – those that will rally the crowds - are those brands that act to shift power away from the establishment, whether in ideology, standing, or both. Take the host of first timers and relative ‘little guys’ – Vroom, Mercari and DoorDash, among others – that are preparing to step out on stage for the very first time. While a striking number of brands known for showcasing commercials during the big football finale are struggling to navigate the right note to hit, pivoting budgets to public health, or bowing out entirely, we see these brands step up to the plate largely unencumbered by the same kinds of baggage.
What frees them from this is the meta-narrative of subversion that’s implicit in them even showing up at the Super Bowl. If, for advertisers, the Super Bowl is (by its very nature and price tag) a site of extreme privilege and power - symbolic of the 'establishment' that is on shaky cultural ground at best - then Vroom and Mercari are the Reddit GameStop vigilantes of the Big Game: myriad David’s storming Goliath’s stage. In this way, the Super Bowl as media space becomes almost the butt of the joke – a meme moment of the big league being usurped by the smalls. Vroom even plays directly into this narrative explicitly, its spot centring on overthrowing the ‘torturous’ legacy process of buying a car.
This isn’t just a privilege bestowed on first-timer advertisers, however. Squarespace – Super Bowl frequenter - just released its '5-to-9' spot – a clever reworking of Dolly Parton mega-hit (and work-life ideology) that champions making the side-hustle the main hustle, thus shifting power towards the individual and away from the ‘corporation’. What they have in common? Both the ‘little guys’ and likes of Squarespace represent a challenge to the status quo: an inverting and renegotiating of an established system of power – who has it and how it’s wielded.
It’s this dynamic that makes it their moment; that means the same rules don’t apply to them – and that will ensure they’re likely to be received the most favourably of all. Through this lens, the dropping of millions of dollars doesn’t seem crass, but calculated. To brazenly sport wares without a caveat of civic duty doesn’t feel selfish, but a powerful flex. While for big legacy brands, a Super Bowl investment risks seeming dangerously at odds with the socioeconomic climate, for the likes of Vroom and Squarespace they’re literally investing in a power reversal that – thanks to its cultural timeliness and our appetite for it – is likely to pay dividends with people. In 2021, small[er] brands making big bets at the Super Bowl in order to challenge the way that power works isn’t just an act of opportunism, but a move of pure genius.
Twelve months of the pandemic – and all that it’s entailed – is reshaping us, priming us to put our weight behind those ideas that renegotiate who gets to have power. The Super Bowl will be no different. So, as we head into Sunday, keep your eyes out for these brands. What they talk about. How they position. How it makes you feel about their disruptive moment in such bright spotlight.
Because this year, more than any other, we’re rooting for the little league – Super Bowl and beyond.
- Laura Tarbox, planning director for cultural and brand strategy, Ogilvy New York