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An image from Toyota's 2021 Super Bowl commercial.

The Associated Press

Commercials during this year’s Super Bowl are expected to take on a nostalgic tone as advertisers walk a fine line between entertaining viewers and being sensitive to the widespread devastation of COVID-19, marketing experts say.

Many of the star-studded commercials have a funny, feel-good message – an attempt to brighten moods and offer a diversion during a difficult time, they say.

Yet advertisers must be careful to hit the right tone during the first COVID-era Super Bowl or risk facing a backlash, Toronto-based communications expert Andrew Simon says.

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“It’s a tightrope,” says Simon, global creative lead and chief creative officer for Edelman Canada.

“They’ve got to be cautious and sensitive but it’s also a great opportunity to put a smile on people’s faces and sell a product.”

Following a 2019 Supreme Court decision, Canadians watching the Sunday broadcast will see the same football game and halftime show, but the ads will be different.

Canadian ads will be televised on local channels CTV, TSN and RDS and U.S. broadcaster CBS in Canada through a practice known as simultaneous substitution.

“Canadians watching the game will see the CTV feed, with Canadian ads,” Renee Dupuis-Macht, a spokeswoman for Bell Media, said in an e-mail.

While some American commercials might be aired here if U.S. companies buy advertising time in Canada, often the ads aired in this country lack the big budgets and production value of their U.S. counterparts, experts say.

The discrepancy prompts many Canadians to forgo local ads and watch the American commercials online.

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But viewers will notice some stalwart Super Bowl advertisers like Budweiser, Coke and Audi missing from this year’s commercials, underscoring the caution of some brands during the pandemic.

Beer giant Anheuser-Busch is still buying four minutes of advertising for its other brands, including Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. But the company said last month it’s donating the money it would have spent on its Budweiser ad to coronavirus vaccination awareness efforts.

“It’s making a statement,” says Phil Otto, CEO and senior brand strategist at Revolve, a Halifax marketing and branding firm.

“You need to take the temperature of the world right now.”

But for some advertisers, pulling out of Super Bowl LV may have more to do with the pandemic cutting sharply into sales rather than a public relations strategy, experts say. With pricey ads costing an estimated US$5.5 million for 30 seconds during the Feb. 7 broadcast, some may have decided it’s not worth it this year.

Dupuis-Macht with Bell Media declined to comment on the cost of airing Super Bowl commercials in Canada.

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The pandemic has also created logistical challenges for production crews, and questions have been raised about whether the Sunday broadcast would attract a strong viewership.

But while the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be at roughly a third of its usual capacity when the team plays the Kansas City Chiefs, the number of viewers watching from home is expected to be strong, observers say.

“People are looking for something to celebrate,” says Otto, noting that the recent World Junior Ice Hockey Championships had better-than-expected viewership.

Indeed, with much of the world under lockdown or facing gathering restrictions, many people will likely tune in, Simon says.

“The audience is going to be there,” he says. “You can’t ask for a better matchup and for the first time in Super Bowl history a team is actually playing at its home stadium.”

Though some veteran advertisers aren’t running ads, other companies have come up with creative ways to offer viewers 30-seconds of levity in a hard time, Simon says.

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Many of the commercials appear to take a sentimental walk down memory lane, featuring celebrities, songs or cultural references from earlier times.

For example, U.S. website company Squarespace partnered with Dolly Parton to put a 2021 spin on her iconic 1980 hit song “9 to 5.” The updated “5 to 9” song serves as “a rallying call to those dreaming of turning their after-hours passion project into their own business,” the company said in a statement.

Cheetos adapted Shaggy’s classic 2000 hit “It Wasn’t Me” about cheating on your girlfriend to offer a tip on what to do when caught sneaking someone else’s snacks.

An ad for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, meanwhile, is a play on the proverbial phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It pokes fun at some of life’s trials during the pandemic, including thwarted weddings and DIY haircuts, while lemons fall from the sky in a parody of the famous frog scene from the 1999 film Magnolia.

And in another 1990s throw back, “Wayne’s World” stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reunite for an Uber Eats commercial with a celebrity cameo from Cardi B.

“It’s this combination of looking back and taking comfort in a simpler time and a happier time but also looking towards the future with hope,” Simon says.

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But the caution of advertisers during the 55th Super Bowl means some of the edginess might be missing from Sunday’s ads, says Peter Ignazi, global chief creative officer with marketing and communications firm Cossette in Toronto.

“Nostalgia is safe,” he says. “It evokes a lot of borrowed emotion from other time.”

Playing it safe lends a bit of “lameness” to some of this year’s commercials, Ignazi says.

“No one wants to say the wrong thing, no one’s trying to stand out in any kind of controversial way,” he says. “I think everyone was a bit scared of saying the wrong thing.”

General Motors’ Super Bowl ad, for example, is called “No Way, Norway,” and stars comedian Will Ferrell attacking Norway for outpacing the U.S. in electric vehicle adoption.

“It’s done in a charming way,” Ignazi says, “but taking shots at Norway is the safest thing you can do in the world.”

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With files from The Associated Press

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