Kraft Heinz's Planters was the early front runner in this year's Super Bowl advertising race as a "leaked" teaser video and promotions around the demise of Mr. Peanut stirred up discussion from those curious to see how the fate of the brand mascot would play out. A tragic turn of events in the real world has upended that narrative and sent a broader shockwave through the advertising world that is potentially unprecedented in the history of the big game, agency experts say.
The same dark, absurdist qualities of messaging that drew attention toward Planters — including posts around a funeral to be held for Mr. Peanut at the Super Bowl — soured following the death of NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others, including Bryant's teenage daughter, in a helicopter crash Sunday. Planters decided to pause any paid media behind #RIPeanut, but told Ad Age it will run its 30-second funeral spot as planned during the third quarter.
"I don't know of any historical precedent, or certainly not something that hit this close to the time period," Steve Parker Jr., CEO of agency Levelwing, which has worked with client Bridgestone on 12 years of Super Bowl-related work, told Marketing Dive.
Responses have extended beyond Planters as well. Two other Super Bowl advertisers, Hard Rock Cafe and Hyundai's Genesis luxury line, are making last-minute edits to their TV spots to remove material that could potentially come off as insensitive, including, in Genesis' case, shots featuring a helicopter, according to media reports. Like Planters, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Olay, Pop-Tarts and Avocados From Mexico delayed or halted the rollout of their campaigns, speaking to the need for marketers to have a contingency plan in place for potentially sensitive subject matter like a celebrity's death.
"When you enter into a conversation with culture, as Planters did, then you have to be extensively aware of the sentiment and react accordingly," Mark Taylor, chief creative officer of agency Mering, told Marketing Dive. "It's more significant because this is happening around the Super Bowl and the spotlight that surrounds it."
No easy options
While there's no way Planters or other brands could have expected the circumstances around Bryant, the development highlights the inlaid risks for advertisers marketing around heavy subject matter, like death, and pushing their Super Bowl efforts online early. Bryant's passing has stirred controversy elsewhere, as media outlets and reporters who have pointed to past rape allegations against the NBA superstar have experienced backlash and, in one case, been put on temporary administrative leave.
The cumulative impact of the news points to Bryant's outsized status as an icon, not just in basketball, but also the broader sports and marketing worlds. Marketers reacting to his death around the Super Bowl presents a special case, as the big game demands months of planning and heavy upfront costs — this year's broadcaster Fox charged up to $5.6 million per 30-second TV spot — that all funnel into one night that provides little room for flexibility.
"Given the investment, of course, and the PR and the paid media opportunities around the Super Bowl, it's like trying to move a cruise ship," Dan Lobring, VP of marketing communications at the sports marketing agency rEvolution, told Marketing Dive. "I don't think a drastic turn is where these brands are prepared to go."
Planters will likely feel the heaviest impact given the similarities between its campaign and a real-life tragedy, though the Super Bowl's reputation as a night of humor and high spirits could provide a welcome balm to an otherwise grim news cycle, experts said.
"People understand that you can be jovial and laugh on one hand, but be heartfelt and respectful in another," Taylor said. "This particular instance, it just hits closer to home."
Broader takeaways for marketers could be difficult to pin down — tragedy is almost by definition somewhat random — but it's possible that Bryant's death and the subsequent shadow it has cast in the lead-up to Super Bowl LIV will have a lingering effect on plans for future games.
"This is kind of a learning moment for everybody," Lobring said. "It's one of those things that you hope to never have to prepare for, but it's making people stop and pay attention."