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Companies question the ethics of running Super Bowl ads during the pandemic

DTH Photo Illustration. Many companies are deciding if it is ethical to spend money on Super Bowl ads instead of COVID-19 relief efforts.

With commercials costing over $5 million each and reaching an audience of about 100 million people, having an advertisement at the Super Bowl is a big deal. But in the midst of a pandemic, some major companies who typically spend millions on advertisements will direct their dollars toward causes they believe serve the greater population.

For the first time in 37 years, Budweiser decided not to air its advertisement during the Super Bowl, instead shifting its focus to promote COVID-19 vaccine distribution and awareness efforts. 

Budweiser taking the bench on running a commercial has made national headlines. And it's leading Americans to consider the ethics of running advertisements promoting normal life to sell products when the pandemic is still persisting. 

Deb Aikat, an associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, believes the ethics of the situation are complicated — but he said they can be broken down into three ideas:

  • Companies want to create a sense of normalcy in a world full of chaos
  • Companies drop out every year, making Budweiser’s decision shocking, but not out of the ordinary
  • The spirit of America is to move on

Aikat said that his thoughts on why more companies might not follow Budweiser’s choice are based on the current American thought process.

“If you're going to sulk all day and say, ‘Oh, we are in a pandemic, we aren’t going to do anything,’ that's not American,” Aikat said. “If you have that American spirit of working hard and trying to overcome it all, and trying to be very optimistic that we have a better future ahead, that's what I'm seeing with this.”

John Sweeney, a professor of sports communication and advertising in the Hussman School, said he thinks that even if companies were to turn their advertisements to a public service approach, the consumers would not react positively.

“There was another time when a group of advertisers — because of what was going on in our society — withheld commercials, and the reaction to that was negative,” Sweeney said. “It's like the average consumer was like, ‘Things are not very good right now, can't we have our entertainment and can't you leave our entertainment as entertainment?’”

Though not all consumers are on the same page about Super Bowl advertising, first-year math student Graham Grush was pleasantly surprised by Budweiser's decision. He believes it was a necessary move by the beer company to show there are bigger things to focus on currently. 

“It shows that they're willing to make a huge sacrifice in order to make a statement that they think is important,” Grush said. 

Budweiser is not alone in its decision to pull an advertisement. Pepsi and Coca-Cola have also both stated they will not run commercials for their products during the game. Pepsi instead will shift its focus to the halftime show, and Coke will invest elsewhere.

“I'm hoping that maybe also this means the message could reach the American people more,” Grush said. “You know, if they just see one company pull out their ad because of this issue they might just think, ‘Oh, this company has a strong agenda.’ But the fact that multiple companies are doing this will hopefully enlighten people who think, ‘Oh wow, this is actually something that I should consider.’”

Conversely, Sweeney and Aikat said they are not sure how big an impact not running an advertisement will make on the world of advertising.

“I salute Anheuser-Busch for trying it,” Sweeney said. “I salute them for caring about a particular issue. I remember they did a Super Bowl commercial about immigration, which was a positive story in a time when the (Donald) Trump administration was very negative on immigration. They've done some interesting things, and a lot of advertisers don't ever shake things up beyond their own little world, but they are, and it’s interesting to watch that way.”

The ethics of whether or not a company runs an advertisement is complicated. But ultimately, viewers will have a different experience watching the Super Bowl without Coca-Cola bears sliding down ice glaciers and comical beer ads. 

“This year is a good indicator of, you know, 'It can't get that bad, it can't get any worse,’” Aikat said. “And the companies that are sitting out, — Coke, Hyundai and Pepsi — they don't need the Super Bowl. Their advertising happens every day.”


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