Budweiser is skipping the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly four decades

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Budweiser's Clydesdale horses have become synonymous with the Super Bowl. But this year, they're getting a rest: For the first time in 37 years, the beer company isn't advertising during the Super Bowl.

Instead, Budweiser is shifting the money that would've been spent on the commercial slot — a reported US$5.6 million for the February 7 event — to support "critical Covid-19 vaccine awareness" with donations and future ad campaigns, the company said Monday.

The pandemic forced Budweiser to rethink its marketing approach, vice president of marketing Monica Rustgi told CNN Business, as the alcohol industry reeled from the sudden shutdown of bars, restaurants and big events. The brand wanted to "be proactive" in promoting vaccine awareness since it will eventually lead back to normalcy, she said in an interview.

Some of Budweiser's planned advertising airtime this year will be given to the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative's Vaccine Education Initiative.Last year, both organizations forged a partnership to educate the public about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness. Budweiser is donating $1 million worth of ad inventory on TV, radio and other places to the organizations for future ads.

Ahead of the game, Budweiser is also rolling out a new online ad this week narrated by "Parks and Recreation" actress Rashida Jones, highlighting people coping with the virus and a group of healthcare workers that were among the first people in the U.S. to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. It's also giving away free beer on a dedicated website.

Confusion about the vaccine is rampant with 60% of Americans saying they don't know when or where to get it, according to a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Half of respondents said they were "frustrated" and nearly a quarter felt "angry" about the vaccine's rollout with 60% rating their state government's performance on vaccines as fair or poor.

Anheuser-Busch's other brands, like Bud Light and Michelob Ultra, will air four minutes' worth of ads during the Super Bowl. But the absence of Budweiser, including in the pre- and post-game show, is something Rustgi expects people to notice.

"Some people might wonder why were not showing up at the Super Bowl, but we will just show up in a different way," she said.

SUPER SLUMP?

Budweiser isn't the only big company skipping this year's game. Coca-Cola and Pepsi both announced in recent weeks they won't be buying ads during Super Bowl LV.

The sports spectacle has been "struggling to attract the degree of advertising demand it usually draws" because of the pandemic's economic affects on company's bottom lines, said research firm eMarketer. For example, Coca-Cola recently slashed 2,000 jobs as it grapples with a decline in revenue from lost sales in restaurants. Pepsi said it would rather focus its marketing efforts on its sponsored Super Bowl halftime show.

EMarketer also reported that companies are "carefully considering the financial costs associated" with a pricey Super Bowl ad because some are worried the game might have smaller ratings compared to previous years because the pandemic is preventing people from holding viewing parties.

CBS has sold a significant amount of its ad inventory for this year's game, sources familiar tell CNN Business. That signals some difficulty for the broadcaster. In 2019, Fox reportedly sold out of its ad inventory by Thanksgiving — more than two months before the game.

Still, some are bullish on the event because it's usually the year's most-watched TV broadcast.

Last year's Super Bowl on Fox averaged a whopping 102 million viewers. The game's ratings towered over the second highest-rated broadcast of 2020, which was the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. That raked in 73 million viewers across several networks.

Mark Read, CEO of the world's largest advertising firm WPP, told CNN Business that Budweiser's move "says more about the mood in the country than it does about the value of the Super Bowl as a marketing platform."

"Obviously brands need to speak to consumers in the right tone and are rightly worried about getting this wrong, but I have no doubt that the Super Bowl will remain the year's biggest sports and advertising event," he said.