“A single Super Bowl commercial can change our vocabulary,” wrote Bernice Kanner in “The Super Bowl of Advertising: How the Commercials Won the Game” in 2003. “Whassup?!”

The late, prolific ad journalist could’ve chosen no better example of Big Game vernacular to prove her point. Introduced in an instant-canon 2000 Budweiser Super Bowl ad, “whassup” went viral before we even knew what viral was. “It was soon heard everywhere — muttered by DJs, on websites, in spoofs, in the news,” wrote Kanner. The term became a generational byword for friendship and camaraderie, and the heavily lauded Super Bowl ad that immortalized it became yet another glittering jewel in the King of Beers’ marketing crown.

At this point, there are quite a few. Beer companies have coveted advertising airtime during the Super Bowl nearly since the game’s inception in 1967, and for a time, any of them could have it, for the right price. But as the biggest and most aggressive macrobrewer in America, Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, eventually cornered the nation’s premier advertising event for itself. In 1989, A-B inked a deal with broadcasters for the exclusive beer advertising rights to the Super Bowl, locking out rivals like Miller Brewing Company and Coors Brewing Company, and guaranteed itself total control over the Big Game’s lager-related marketing message.

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It’s a unique deal that exists in no other category, and it continues to this day. Tomorrow, too: In December 2021, Anheuser-Busch InBev (née A-B) re-upped Bud Light as the NFL’s official beer for another five years, preserving its singular Super Bowl status in the process. But while ABI’s exclusive ad arrangement is no secret to marketing professionals and beer industry insiders, it’s not exactly common knowledge to the American drinking public. How does such a deal come together? Why have brands like Yellow Tail and Samuel Adams appeared on screen during the Big Game? And, given the rise of streaming video, social media, and virtual experiences, does Super Bowl ad exclusivity even still matter that much?

Pregame warmup

Before kickoff, let’s establish some guidelines to help us navigate the playing field. A gridiron, if you will. First of all: There’s all sorts of history available about the NFL, the Super Bowl, and even individual Super Bowl games, but vexingly little authoritative documentation of the advertising that underwrites the whole shebang. Kanner’s book — thorough though it is — is 19 years old, an eon in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of advertising. It gets confusing, and not just from the outside looking in. ABI, which will air a half-dozen ads across four minutes of Big Game air this year, declined VinePair’s request for an interview. But in response to emailed questions, the company stated that its archives actually held conflicting accounts of when exactly its longstanding exclusivity actually began — 1975 or 1989. The latter has been more widely cited in contemporary news reports and the company’s own press releases over the years, and ads for other beer brands appear in the intervening years, so we’re marking the beginning of the King of Beers’ Super Bowl reign in 1989 here. (Though if you have information that can shed more light on the discrepancy, let us know!) The point is: The history has gotten murky, and it’s not always clear exactly what happened when.

Secondly, in the Super Bowl, everything is sold separately, and the prices are heavily negotiated. The “official beer sponsor of the NFL” is different from the Super Bowl’s exclusive beer advertiser. The four networks that have broadcast the game over the years — ABC, Fox, CBS, and NBC — all sell their ad inventory directly with buyers. NFL team, playoff, and Super Bowl logos are all à la carte, too. The prices you might see listed aren’t what big, repeat advertisers pay for the air. (“[N]o one actually pays retail — that would be like buying a car for the sticker price,” wrote Kanner.) Besides, big buys like ABI’s are often packaged up with other, non-Super Bowl inventory the network wants to move, making it difficult to tease out what, exactly, the macrobrewer actually spends on the game itself. (ABI, unsurprisingly, keeps that information under wraps.)

Third, though the macrobrewer’s ad exclusivity extends to the national in-game broadcast, its direct and indirect competitors can and do exploit creative loopholes to sneak onto the screen and into drinkers’ collective consciousness. We’ll talk more about these “end runs” a little later. But first, we’re going to talk about ABI.

Big Beer and the Big Game

Since time immemorial (or at least the repeal of Prohibition) Anheuser-Busch has been a marketing powerhouse. And since 1967, the Super Bowl (which was originally called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”) has been the nation’s premiere advertising event. Starting in 1975, A-B (and, following InBev’s takeover in 2008, ABI) has advertised at least one of its brands during every game. Since 2000, it has outspent every other Super Bowl advertiser at a rate of roughly two-to-one, according to analysis provided to VinePair by Kantar Group, a market research firm that analyzes TV advertising during the Super Bowl. In 2020, for example, ABI spent $10 million less on Super Bowl ads than it did in 2019, and it was still a top-5 Big Game ad buyer.

“When it comes to the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl advertisers, there’s nobody as big as A-B,” says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing and associate marketing chair at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “There’s nobody even close to A-B.”

The company’s exclusive rights to air beer ads during the Big Game date back to 1989 (according to reports from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and releases from A-B’s communications department).That’s five years after it introduced Bud Light to counter Miller Brewing Company’s own “Lite” offering, and just three years after its iconic Clydesdales carried their first Super Bowl spot. Through the rise of the internet, a hostile takeover, and a brutal recession, it has held onto the privilege ever since.

“There’s always the conversation, or the question of, ‘Is it worth advertising in the Big Game? What brands should be in the Big Game?’” says Lisa Weser, the founder of Trailblaze, a cannabis communications agency who previously served as head of brand communication at ABI. The macrobrewer negotiates its blanket purchase directly with each broadcaster, and usually in five-year increments. “I believe they have right of first refusal” on the exclusivity, says Weser, who worked at ABI from 2012 to 2017. “They have exercised that right to re-up every time, and I believe they always will.”

Last year, even as Budweiser made headlines for foregoing a Super Bowl LV commercial, its parent company ran four minutes of national ads for four brands, and one for the corporation itself. (These days, says Weser, customers “need to meet and like the company behind the brand,” so showing its corporate face to rank-and-file drinkers helps ABI in a way it might not have even a decade ago.) The breadth and depth of its portfolio is one of the reasons that exclusivity is both valuable and favorable to ABI, says Mark Beal, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information and the author of two books on marketing to Gen Z consumers. Unlike companies that are synonymous with their brands, the macrobrewer has a lot of brands to talk about.

“Whether it’s General Electric, IBM, or whatever it might be, if you ran six, seven, eight spots [advertising a single brand] it’d be like, ‘Not again, I’m getting tired of this,” he says. By contrast, ABI’s brand roster gives it range: “These are going to be probably very unique spots for each of these brands … it’s gonna be a variety of content.” Some ads will be familiar (the Budweiser Clydesdales are coming back), but Bud Light’s Seltzer Hard Soda and Next line extensions will be entirely new to the national viewing audience. Ditto Cutwater Spirits, the canned cocktail brand ABI acquired in 2019; the brand’s first Super Bowl spot ran only regionally last year.

Beal believes ABI’s singular Super Bowl role provides the perfect opportunity to introduce audiences to new brands, because they can’t be counter-programmed. “You own the game. All those spots they have this year, what are they doing? Yes they’re doing the beer, but they’re also going to introduce a lot of their emerging brands.” The company’s lock on in-game national air allows its marketers to flood the zone proactively, rather than worrying about a fledgling brand getting blown out of the water by a legacy competitor with a stronger message.

“It gives you the freedom to develop your message without worrying that a competitor is going to show up with a similar message, or even a more compelling message,” agrees Calkins. He points to the non-exclusive automotive category for contrast. “You’ll end up with a half dozen or more different auto brands running on the Super Bowl, and there’s a very real risk that they all run together.”

End runs and blurred lines

Speaking of running together: Even though ABI has a lock on beer and wine advertising in the Super Bowl, competitors have found creative ways to hijack the event over the years. “Entrepreneurial companies have long tried to circumvent the high price of ads [on the Super Bowl’s national broadcast], buying time on local markets or pre- and postgame shows,” wrote Kanner. These maneuvers are known in the advertising industry as “end runs.” Given the world’s biggest beer company controls the booze-oriented commercial inventory for the Big Game, beer and wine firms that want air are forced to zig and zag.

In 2003, Miller bought 30-second slots before and after (but not during) Super Bowl XXXVII to run its controversial “Catfight” ad, which was deemed “risqué” at the time and would be considered almost cartoonishly sexist by today’s standards. Newcastle Brown Ale released an online-only commercial with actress Anna Kendrick in 2014 in which filmmakers bleep out the words “Super Bowl” as Kendrick breaks the fourth wall to tell viewers that Newcastle doesn’t “have the money or permission” to run the ad at all. In 2017, Yellow Tail became the first wine brand to advertise during the Super Bowl in 40 years by buying regional spots in 70 markets from network affiliates, which are not covered by ABI’s national-level blanket blackout. In 2021, Sam Adams took this local detour a step further, running a parody of Budweiser’s Clydesdales on regional air in the Northeast to promote its Wicked Hazy IPA.

Beal, who spent 25 years in public relations and marketing before moving on to teaching, delights in the gamesmanship of end runs. It’s not hard to see why. The moves require cheekiness and tradecraft in equal measure. Plus, in the beer business, any brand doing an end run is an underdog by default because of ABI’s marketing might. Who doesn’t love an underdog?

Still, Calkins isn’t so sure end runs yield commercials with staying power. “A local spot only gets you so far. It’s hard to pick up a huge amount of the country with local buys,” he says. “A lot of what you get [by advertising nationally] on the Super Bowl is discussion before the game, during the game, and after the game, and everybody says which one was better and which one was worse. The ads that run in the spot buys are rarely part of that.” But for beer brands not named ABI, it’s that or nothing.

You might assume ABI, having paid hundreds of millions of dollars to control the Super Bowl’s beer-related messaging, would be irritated by these side steps, but Weser says it doesn’t make much of an impact on the macrobrewer’s Super Bowl strategy: “I don’t think they give it a second thought,” she says. Whether that’s out of magnanimity, or just a wider-lens comprehension of the problem at hand, is subject to interpretation, though. “All big beers are in decline, they’re all losing share, and I don’t know that the Super Bowl really changes the numbers game when it comes to how the big beers are competing with each other, as well as with the entire beverage sector for… share of throat,” Weser says.

In other words, if Super Bowl end runs are pesky but harmless to ABI, shifting tastes, blurring category lines, and a relentlessly rising spirits industry pose longer-term complications for its exclusivity deal. In 2015, ESPN reported that the macrobrewer had agreed to pay $250 million per year to maintain Bud Light’s status as the NFL’s official beer through 2022. The deal blocked wine brands but did not block spirits brands, a sign that the NFL recognized a growing advertising appetite among liquor companies. In 2021, that foresight paid off, with Diageo PLC, the world’s biggest spirits company, signing on as the NFL’s first official spirit partner last March. ABI re-upped its Bud Light beer sponsorship with the league in December, but the company “no longer has broad-based alcohol exclusivity,” reported Sports Business Journal. The liquor giant has no in-game ads in this year’s Super Bowl, but the two-decade sales trend toward distilled alcoholic beverages is unambiguous. Couple that with rumblings about tax equivalency and drinkers’ conflation of malt- and spirits-based ready-to-drinks, and it’s hard to imagine Big Liquor staying away from the Big Game for much longer.

The bevolution will definitely be televised

Whether Diageo (which actually did its own local-market end run in 2001 to get around both CBS’s ban on hard liquor advertising and A-B’s blackout) or another spirits company forces the issue remains to be seen. But however the Super Bowl’s alcohol advertising landscape shapes up in years to come, the national telecast seems destined to remain the top prize in any beverage battle even as new forms of media erode TV’s hegemonic hold on American viewers.

One reason for this staying power is simple: There’s still really no other venue that can deliver so many eyeballs at once. “For many years, people have said that the Super Bowl is going to fade away, but it’s totally gone the other way,” Calkins says. “Super Bowl demand this year was incredibly high, prices are at record levels. It used to be that you could go to the Oscars [instead], but the Oscars have just been decimated in terms of viewership. They were always a distant, distant runner-up to the Super Bowl, and last year, they were totally cluttered. They’re not comparable.” (The gap is pronounced: In 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Academy Awards attracted just 25 percent of the viewers who tuned into that year’s Super Bowl.)

Beal, who studies marketing efforts to Gen Z consumers, notes that, while audiences may no longer glue themselves to the TV for the full Super Bowl, they’re still engaging in ways that are valuable to advertisers like ABI. “More and more consumers are not sitting down and watching the entire three-and-a-half to four-hour telecast like they might have done in the ‘90s and the early 2000s,” he says. “Consumers, and not just Gen Zers, are consuming Super Bowl content, even on day of game, on many, many other non-telecast media.”

This cuts both ways, though. While some experts believe the efficiency of beer ads on traditional TV is aging out with the medium’s viewership, others see ongoing value in the spots as anchors of multi-media campaigns that surround the Big Game. In other words, there may be fewer coveted young drinkers watching Budweiser’s Clydesdales via telecast, but viewers’ cross-channel engagement with the event offers advertisers valuable secondary and tertiary exposure if/when its commercials enter the mainstream discourse online. As one marketing executive told Morning Brew last month, “The Super Bowl has become more efficient based on the distribution of the ancillary coverage that it achieves through social and digital distribution channels.”

ABI knows this full well, which is likely why it’s opted to prerelease many of its 2022 spots, and long-lead tie-ins like Bud Light Next’s non-fungible tokens. “We want to take consumers along the journey of Bud Light Next, and some of that is going to include trial of the product, certain voting rights on key brand decisions, for example, merchandise, and swag, and designs of the swag,” Corey Brown, senior digital director of Bud Light, told Marketing Dive earlier this month.

For ABI, there are also strategic upsides that come with its Super Bowl exclusivity. A successful Super Bowl commercial can build morale for workers throughout the organization and fire up ABI’s distribution partners, whose buy-in on new products is instrumental to a successful rollout. Campaigns kicked off during the Super Bowl will be shown again at the company’s sales and marketing convention, known as SAMCOM, which is programmed in tight concert with the game to keep momentum high, says Weser. (Whether this is an efficient way to motivate the middle-tier troops is an open question.)

On top of all that, ABI also derives a pair of intangible benefits from its longstanding Super Bowl exclusivity. As the only beers appearing on screen year after year, the company has insinuated its brands as consistent threads in the American cultural fabric. It’s why benching the Clydesdales last year elicited such an outpouring of genuine goodwill for the apparently beneficent King of Beers, and why Bud Light’s “Legends” spot in that Super Bowl came off cute and nostalgic rather than lazy and self-referential. Companies that advertise sporadically in the Super Bowl, or in noisy, non-exclusive sectors, can only dream of the lasting folk cachet ABI has bought its brands over three and a half decades of cornering the category.

The other indelible upside to ABI’s pricey, covetous allegiance to Super Bowl advertising is the throughline it maintains between the Busch family’s St. Louis firm of yore, and the Brazilian-run global behemoth it is today. Little remains of pre-2008 A-B’s corporate personality, but the company’s Big Game presence has been a reliable source of pride and tradition in the 14 years since.

“They get [return on investment] out of it in so many different ways,” Weser says, reflecting on ABI’s Super Bowl strategy. “But I think at this point, it is very much part of their DNA, part of their culture. If they weren’t there, it wouldn’t feel right.”

Then again, if ABI ever were to give up its Big Game ad exclusivity, you can bet all the booze brands that the company has boxed out over the years would get over its absence pretty quick. As for how nostalgic viewers might react to a Bud-free Big Game… well, that’s a Clydesdale of a different color.

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