Bowled over by the $2m slots on ‘Super Sunday’

Cars and beer dominated the Super Bowl, but at $2m for just 30 seconds some ‘old faithfuls’ chose to sit on the bench this year, says Polly Devaney

Almost half of the US population tuned in to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Oakland Raiders at this year’s Super Bowl on the last Sunday of January in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. According to a Maxim magazine survey they gorged their way through 18,500 tons of crisps and popcorn, sales of Antacids increased by 20 per cent and six per cent of them called in sick to work on “Super Bowl Monday” – the nation’s biggest collective hangover. And advertisers paid ABC, this year’s broadcaster, an average of $2.1m (1.3m) for their 30-second chance of connecting with that “hard-to-reach” male market (even though 44 per cent of viewers were allegedly female).

Two rather incompatible products dominated the advertising at Super Bowl XXXVII – beer and cars. Official beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch bought a record 11 spots of the total 61 available, while Coors Light and Michelob fought for their share of the limelight with just one ad each. Acura, Cadillac, Chrysler and Dodge all made their attempts to capture the imagination of the car-buying public. Luckily for them one of Anheuser-Busch’s spots was devoted to promoting the need for a designated sober driver on nights out. There were no talking frogs or lizards for Budweiser this year either, just Clydesdale horses playing football and being refereed by a zebra.

After last year’s Britney extravaganza, PepsiCo bought three spots this year – two to launch a new brand, Sierra Mist, and one featuring the ever-popular Osbourne clan, none featuring Britney, who it would appear, has been spotted drinking Coke one too many times for her sponsor’s liking. In the Pepsi Twist spot, Ozzy Osbourne was featured having a twisted “nightmare” as his children Jack and Kelly morphed into Donny and Marie Osmond (even though some people might think this was more of a dream than a nightmare).

Hollywood also took advantage of the blockbuster viewing figures of “Super Sunday” to give cinema-goers their first look at the major films they can expect to see in the coming year. Trailers were shown for The Hulk, Xmen 2 and the sequels to The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels. Arnold Schwarzeneger, promoting Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, introduced the game with a taped message and was present throughout. There were also ads for Disney’s new spy thriller The Recruit and Universal’s latest Jim Carrey comedy.

There were just three dot-com advertisers this year – down from the infamous high of 17 at the “dot-com bowl” of 2000. Monster.com made its fourth successive appearance and rival Yahoo-Hotjobs was up for the challenge yet again. The Monster.com ad featured a driverless truck rampaging across a Mid-West landscape while an unemployed truck driver is looking for a job. Shame they didn’t get together to prevent a disaster eh? The less than subtle message appears to be that Monster.com can help find blue-collar jobs too.

The third dot-com advertiser was Super Bowl newcomer MyFICO.com, a website that claims to “see how lenders see you”, by working out your credit rating. MyFICO must be hoping that it doesn’t go the same way as so many previous dot-com Super Bowl advertisers that blew most of their marketing budgets on one slot in the Super Bowl but didn’t survive to tell the tale.

So it wasn’t all fun beer, coke and car ads – in fact there are always a few sombre government warnings and anti-tobacco and alcohol messages thrown into the mix for the Super Bowl, which always seem out of context with the event. This year was the turn of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which aired two spots warning against the dangers of smoking marijuana as a pregnant teenager.

Despite the profile of the male audience watching the Super Bowl, the large number of female viewers means that many advertisers steer away from a “sex sells” policy, so as not to offend their more delicate viewers. What they revert to instead is a “cute animals sell” policy. This year the Super Bowl ads featured horses, a zebra, a squirrel, a monkey, a dog and a herd of buffalo.

Advertisers have long believed that consumers pay more attention to the Super Bowl ads than they do to any other media – in fact 11 per cent of the audience apparently watch it just for the ads and the half-time entertainment. But the big-game environment certainly isn’t suited to every brand. In many ways it is a case of “only proven brand leaders need apply”, especially those with deep pockets and that are not spending their entire marketing budget in one day – it needs to be part of a campaign and not a campaign in itself.

However, not all advertisers that fit the bill are convinced of the need to be in the game. Among those that have opted out of Super Bowl advertising are Apple, Coca-Cola, E-Trade, Frito-Lay’s Doritos, McDonald’s Nike and Xerox. They all have their own reasons for not being in the game any more, but for many it just comes down to cold, hard cash. The cost of an ad slot has doubled since 1996 – and most advertisers believe that not being there doesn’t hurt them. They still have 364 days of the year to get their message across, while saving millions of dollars. Making the branding strong enough on Super Bowl ads is always a difficult task. Many viewers who saw the Osbourne ads will remember it as a Coke ad, while there is always confusion among the beer brands.

Furthermore, it is probably not the case that the beer-swilling, popcorn-eating American public sits around after the game discussing where the ads were for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and then decides not to buy those products as a result. There is also a huge pressure on the advertisers to be creative – and some agencies and marketers just aren’t geared up for that. After all, Super Bowl ads are often only shown once or twice and involve huge production costs to meet what is expected of them on “Super Sunday”. Maybe it should just be renamed “Super way to blow your marketing budget Sunday”.

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

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