AMERICA: Cheerful Super Bowl ads mask a deeper malaise

The super bowl is the advertising industry’s chance to reach the biggest global audience on TV. So what was the result this year?

When the whistle blows at the start of the super bowl each year, there is usually as much, if not more, hype and anticipation surrounding the ads that will be shown in the breaks as there is about which team will win the coveted trophy. The super bowl has traditionally been the showcase for the $250bn (&175bn) American advertising industry, with high costs and big egos all being at stake.

Considering that it is the most watched event on American television all year, with more than 40 per cent of homes tuning in and a massive worldwide audience, it is not surprising that the pressure is on.

At this year’s super bowl in New Orleans earlier this month, it was widely expected that there would be ostentatious displays of advertiser patriotism and a muted post-September 11 sombre mood during the commercial breaks. However, only three of the ads made reference to the troubles and only one of those had a commercial message.

Overall, Madison Avenue advertising executives showed restraint, with ads featuring little sentimentality or sex, and humour being king. The message seemed to be that America needed to laugh.

Given the huge audience it reaches and the fact that an estimated 50 per cent of viewers tune in for the commercials alone, super bowl ads command a huge price premium. However, this was the second year in a row that the price has fallen and it is said that Fox, the broadcasting network for the game this year, struggled to sell all the spots for the average $1.9m (&1.3m) price tag.

In 2000, we saw what became known as “dot-com bowl” where the predominance of dot-com companies with huge media budgets pushed the average price of a 30-second spot up from $1.6m (&1.1m) the year before, to $2.1m (&1.5m). The new millennium kicked off with 19 of the 35 super bowl advertisers being dot-coms keen to attract potential customers and investors with their high-profile super bowl ads.

However, a year later in 2001, only three dot-com advertisers were willing or able to repeat the experience. Nine of the nineteen had sacked their super bowl ad agency or stopped consumer advertising and two had gone bust.

Many advertisers create special ads for the super bowl and keep them under wraps until the event but this year marked another change in that respect.

Levi’s, which has used the Internet to let consumers order custom-tailored jeans, used the medium to let customers choose which ad they wanted shown during the game. The initiative, which was a partnership with Yahoo!, made Levi’s the first company to turn the big decision over to its consumers – and, according to Levi’s director of marketing Anna Brockway: “There is something revolutionary about providing the most American virtue that we have: free choice.” Taking part in the Levi’s Super Vote 2002 earned consumers the chance to win a pair of Levi’s.

The winner of the three on offer was an ad directed by Spike Jonze called Crazy Legs which used a camera trick to portray a man whose legs gyrated bizarrely in his Flyweight Levi’s.

Advertisers are increasingly trying to make more mileage out of their investment in super bowl ads, often using the Web as the vehicle for this. Last year, the Snickers brand let consumers vote for clichés to be used in a Cruncher ad.

Scott Hudler of Mars says: “We got extra coverage for being out in advance of super bowl advertising. It is a sizeable investment viewed by a lot of people. You want to do something more.”

Last year, Pepsi let consumers pick their alltime favourite Pepsi ad to air during the post-game programming and, this year, it scored a high note with its 90-second slot featuring Britney Spears in a Pepsi-through-the-decades ad. Although the ad scored high in terms of recall, it was the most polarizing of the game, scoring highest on the “hated” and the “liked” chart.

Doritos, another Pepsico brand and stalwart of super bowl advertising, actually pulled out of advertising at the game this year, saying it wanted to spend the money online instead. For a product that is so intrinsically linked with the super bowl experience (an estimated 4,500 tonnes of crisps were eaten this year on super bowl Sunday), it is a surprising turnaround.

The most popular ad of the game, according to the polls, was from Anheuser-Busch. The biggest ad buyer in this year’s super bowl by far, with ten slots, the maker of Budweiser showed a group of Clydesdale horses saluting the changed Manhattan skyline. Sombre stuff indeed from the creators of the talking lizards.

Yet all that “likeability” did not translate well into “intent to purchase”, where the brand scored lowest. Budweiser would probably argue that its tribute was not intended to make people want to open a beer – but this is a luxury most advertisers cannot afford.

On another serious theme, the 2002 super bowl also featured the biggest single-event White House advertising campaign to date, with two slots to publicise its strong antidrugs message.

The focus was not on the physical and mental harm drugs can have on the individual but suggested that by buying drugs, Americans could be supporting the terrorist activities of Osama Bin Laden.

Although the tone of super bowl ads changes each year, it is an interesting reflection of the mood of the times and the economy in general as well as being an advertising industry showcase.

It is a unique opportunity for advertisers to reach the biggest global audience on TV and surely one of the only times of the year that anyone tunes in simply to watch the ads.

Whether the likeable ads translate into sales or not, it is certain they are talked about around the water coolers of America for much longer than the score-line ever is.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business writer

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