It would be easy to mistake the main event of Super Bowl LV as a contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Many would wrongly argue it’s the reason 100 million Americans will tune in despite the “on hold” status of Super Bowl parties.

Of course that’s nonsense. Those of us in the advertising world have long recognized the Super Bowl “commercials” to be the real show.

Super Bowl advertising has risen to modernity’s most celebrated display of raw creativity. It has become a veritable parade of surprise and delight. And it’s the one day each year we bear witness to what can happen when wildly talented humans are empowered with staggering production budgets and blue sky briefs.

In a normal year, the contest pits brands and agencies against each other for who can lay claim to the “Favorite Super Bowl Spot” honor. But 2020 was anything but a normal year.

I would argue that the real story of Super Bowl LV is how our entire industry worked together as a team to take on the opponent, COVID-19.

The last pre-Covid Super Bowl was a stellar year for creativity.

As Covid’s second wave dovetailed precisely with Super Bowl concept development and production season, it made Team Creativity the clear underdog.

Agency creative departments forced to work via Teams have had to devise big ideas without the magic wand of “in-person” human interaction. Remote collaboration became a less than ideal new normal. With kids at home, and the countless Covid-related diversions, one would certainly forgive creative departments for being a bit off their game.

Hollywood, too, has been hobbled and humbled by Covid. Remote directing, remote casting, remote post-production…producing anything in 2020 has resembled an M. Night Shyamalan horror story.

And on the client side, brand managers have had to look an uncertain economy square in the eye and reassess the wisdom of investing tens of millions of dollars on a one day event. The most visible example is the first “no show” of the Budweiser brand in over 37 years.

With Budweiser sitting out this year’s Super Bowl the only Clydesdale-like object will come from Sam Adams.

How do we pick a winner in the contest between Covid and Creativity?

For me, the answer lies in how the commercials compare to pre-pandemic years. If the ads, in aggregate, are as good or better, creativity wins. If 2021 proves to be a suckfest, then the win goes to Covid.

Evaluating Super Bowl commercials is a highly subjective exercise. But the three key elements that have always defined a vintage Super Bowl year provide an effective, and surprisingly objective, scorecard:

Humor/Heart Tug Balance
The overall tone of the day needs to reflect what Americans are feeling. That will be tricky after 11 months of lockdown. Are we looking for emotional support? Or do we just want laughs? Will creative agencies who’ve had to work remotely hit the right note? We’ll find out Sunday.

Celebrity
Big ideas are best served up with big names. Over the past decade well over a third of all spots have featured celebrities. But with the looming threat of infection, did the stars opt to stay home in 2020?

Production Wow Factor
Ridley Scott, David Fincher, the Coen brothers; they’ve not only directed mind blowing Super Bowl spots, they’ve made it De Rigueur to show up at the big game with anything less than epic production. It’s like being underdressed at the OSCARS. With travel restrictions and scaled down crews will the production community be able to execute on the level we’ve all come to expect?

Production companies were severely hamstrung this Super Bowl season. But this Bud Light commercial brings the Wow Factor.

An overthrow in the making?

A feeding frenzy for Las Vegas odds makers, Super Bowl bets are hardly limited to the game itself. Bets can be placed on everything from length of halftime shows to how many dogs show up in commercials. But for 2021 there are no prop bets on the Covid vs Creativity contest.

So we’ve taken the liberty of handicapping the event ourselves. And based on what we’ve seen so far from early released spots, we have to make Team Creativity the odds on favorite.

It looks like human beings will deliver on the funny. Creative departments leaned-in big on humor. Sanctimonious “we’re all in this together” seem to be few and far between. Many of the spots we’ve seen so far make us laugh. So we like Team Creative’s chances in the humor category.

When it comes to celebrities, it looks like we may set a record for most commercials featuring a big name. From Will Ferrell to Martha Stewart, 2021 is stacking up to be a banner year for the cult of personality.

The weak link in Team Creative’s offense looks to be on the production side. With the exception of a crazy good spot for Bud Light Seltzer, the virus looks to have taken its toll on production. Smaller casts made social distancing easier. Less spectacular locations got around the travel restrictions. So far, production looks like kind of a “meh.”

Sunday is a very big day for advertising.

All of us working in advertising have been impacted by COVID-19. And we’ve all privately wondered to ourselves, if not out loud, how deeply our industry has been impacted. What does the new normal mean for the power of ideas? Will the essence of what we offer clients, our creativity, stand up against this insidious virus?

And so what we’re going to witness on Sunday is more than a football game. More than some funny commercials. More than just another Super Bowl.

In many ways it’s our future.