min read

Did Covid-19 Influence Super Bowl Ads?

13 insights from 400 Super Bowl ads from the last 6 years.

Michael Murray

Assistant Marketing Manager

For marketers with the budget to spare ($5.5M for every 30 seconds of ad time), the Super Bowl is an unmissable cultural moment.

We wanted to understand how the macro-environmental and economic changes of 2020 would shape this year's Super Bowl commercials. To do this, we analyzed nearly 400 unique video ads from Super Bowls 2016-2021 (we excluded all NFL ads, film trailers, and network commercials).

  1. Using computer vision, we assessed for the frequency of visual cues used by each brand in the creative, including people, diversity, and other visual cues.
  2. Using optical character recognition (OCR), we assessed the frequency of words and phrases (e.g. coronavirus, donate, and discount).

NB: One of the guidelines used (presence of celebrities) was manually evaluated to ensure accuracy, meaning a human reviewer determined if a celebrity were present.

Here are our top 13 insights from a detailed visual analysis of 400 Super Bowl ads:

Part 1: The Covid Factor

Nearly everyone’s life over the last 9 months has been touched by covid to some degree.  Marketers had a choice to make: ignore covid, use it to contextualize their message, or make it a centrepiece of their narrative. What did they decide?

1. Just 7.5% of ads explicitly mentioned covid

Marketers all made the same decision, which was to largely ignore covid: Only 7.5% of ads explicitly mentioned Covid via audio or text.

2. Less than 5% of ads featured people wearing masks

Just 4% of ads featured a mask or a covid-related health product (i.e. sanitiser). Despite most government and health guidance, marketers painted a picture of the world that goes against current health & safety recommendations.

3. Use of crowds or groups stayed roughly the same and featured in 51% of ads

We predicted that marketers would recontextualize social events in light of Covid, but we were wrong: more than 50% of ads featured crowds or groups of people.

Presence of Celebrities and Groups of People
Presence of Celebrities and Groups of People

4. Use of celebrities fell approximately 15% but remained high

We expected brands to forgo casting celebrities this year in an effort to save money, and we were right: Presence of celebrities decreased in 2021, falling nearly 15% to 52% from an all-time high of 66% in 2020. Despite the drop, celebrity usage remained relatively high, averaging the 2nd highest usage in the last 6 years.

5. Marketers opted not to compete on price: presence of discounts fell nearly 3X

Given the difficult economic times, we expected brands would emphasize discounts and promotions. Surprisingly, the use of discounts (audio and visual) fell to 6% in 2021, reaching its lowest percentage since 2016.

6. Ads mentioning green initiatives stayed steady since last year but remain below 5%

Roughly 4.5% of all 2021 Super Bowl ads mentioned green initiatives. This remains unchanged from 2019 and 2020 (between 4-5%),  but up from 2017 (2.86%), and 2018 (1.52%).

7. Ads mentioning philanthropic efforts increased from 2020 but remained uncommon

Mentioning philanthropy is relatively new (2016-2019 Super Bowl ads made no mention of brand philanthropic causes). This changed in 2020, with 3% of ads mentioning their donation efforts and increased slightly in 2021 to 4%.

Mention of Discount and Purpose
Mention of Discount and Purpose

Part 2: Diversity & Inclusion - Representation & Portrayal

Diversity and inclusion is a CMO priority. On the back of Black Lives Matters and growing calls for gender equality, brands have promised to equalize representation in advertising and remove harmful stereotypes.

8. Men featured in 100% of Super Bowl ads in 2021

Representation of both men and women increased in 2021, with men featuring in 100% of Super Bowl commercials. Women accounted for approximately 47% of total Super Bowl viewership from 2014 to 2018 and female representation in Super Bowl ads reached an all-time high in 2021 at 87%.

Gender Representation
Gender Representation

9. Females cast in stereotyped roles and leadership roles both increased in 2021

Encouragingly, females cast in leadership roles (such as astronauts, scientists, and women leading meetings) reached an all-time high (19.40%) but so did portrayals of women in stereotyped roles (such as mothers doing laundry, or women preparing food for their partners).

10. Use of sexualised characters nearly halved in 2021

The use of sexualised female characters (shown in bikinis, partially nude, or wearing tight and short dresses) nearly halved in 2021 and fell to 10%.

Gender Diversity (Portrayals)
Gender Diversity (Portrayals)

11. Representation of people of color jumped 20% in two years

Ads featuring people of color continued to increase and jumped to 87% in 2021 (up from 82% in 2020). Big representational gains have been made in the last two years, increasing casting of people of color by nearly 35% over the last 6 years.

12. However, racial stereotyping reached a 6-year high

More representation unfortunately means more stereotyping. People of color cast in stereotypical roles (i.e. doing physical activities, a reference to racist bias and physical stereotyping) increased to nearly 15%, up from 11.76% in 2020.

13. People of color represented in leadership roles fell to a 4-year low

Despite the significant gains that people of color have made in politics, business, and society, representation of people of color in leadership roles fell to a 4-year low, with less than 5% portrayed in leadership positions (such as leading a meeting or giving a speech).

Diversity Representation and Inclusion
Diversity Representation and Inclusion


In conclusion, only 64% of our predictions about how the world events of 2020 (pandemic, Black Lives Matter, US presidential election) would shape the creative decisions that marketers would make this year were correct.

We overestimated the role that Covid would play not only in how marketers would represent people and settings (mostly as though Covid never happened), but also in the impact this would have on their budgets and messaging (low emphasis on discounts, promotions, and giving back). The avoidance of Covid likely came down to a decision to “stay out of politics”, due to the polarizing perception of how the pandemic should be handled.

Further, we underestimated just how difficult it is to remove stereotypes (most likely subconscious) from the way we represent and portray different people, and despite representational gains having been made for both women and people of color, the stories we tell still have a long way to go. Here’s looking at you, 2022!