When it comes to television events, the Super Bowl is unique. It is a national occasion that is watched by almost half the US population and where the ads are anticipated almost as much as the game. The fragmentation of television audiences means that the chance of reaching 100 million viewers is too good to miss for advertisers – if they can afford it.
The Super Bowl also corners the hard-to-reach male audience – but it doesn’t come cheap. The cost of advertising has risen dramatically in the past 37 years. In the first Super Bowl in 1967, an ad spot cost just under $240,000 in today’s dollars (&£130,897). This year the cost of a 30-second spot averaged $2.25m (&£1.2m) – up seven per cent on last year.
This undoubtedly reflects the fact that the Super Bowl ads have become an event in themselves. Over the years the pressure has grown for brands to devise and showcase the funniest or flashiest of ads. It is the only television event where the ads are previewed and then shown back to back after the event and critiqued – even the flop ads get free airtime post-game. Many viewers watch just for the ads.
The tone of the ads was different this year. After two rather sombre years due to 9/11 and the war in Iraq, a more cheeky and irreverent tone was back. In fact many advertisers chose to adopt rather low-brow humour this year – a trend some would say is consistent with the dumbing down of US television in general.
Several old advertising rivals squared up for the Super Bowl ad battle this year. Anheuser-Busch was the only company to negotiate an exclusive deal making Budweiser the only beer brand advertising at the Super Bowl until 2006. Mastercard, which featured Homer Simpson in a “Priceless” ad, went up against Visa, which promoted its Olympic sponsorship by featuring bikini-clad women playing volleyball in the snow. Schick razors battled against rival Gillette, and there were even two “erectile dysfunction” drugs fighting it out for Super Bowl awareness. There was the usual raft of soft drinks brands, although Coca-Cola was notably absent again this year – as were McDonald’s and Nike.
As in previous years, animals were popular with advertisers and viewers. The most popular ads according to the USA Today Admeter poll, featured a donkey, monkey, dog and bear. Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser reigned again, not only by buying the most slots and having exclusivity but by using humour effectively to win in the popularity stakes. Its winning ad in the USA Today poll showed two masters showing off their dogs’ beer-fetching talents, with one owner’s dog savaging the groin area of the other man.
Two decades after Apple launched its Macintosh with an ad in a Super Bowl slot, it was back in the game with a link-up with Pepsi. Pepsi is giving away 100 million song tracks from Apple’s iTunes music store, and the ad featured 16 teenagers who were sued by the recording industry for illegally downloading music. The ad was set to punk band Green Day singing “I fought the law (and the law won)”. The point was that these former miscreants will now be able to download music free – and legally – from the internet thanks to Pepsi.
Cause-related ads usually make an appearance at the Super Bowl, but this year CBS was accused of hypocrisy over its refusal to air certain ads. While an ad from the Office of National Drug Control was aired, along with an anti-smoking ad from Philip Morris and an anti-drink driving ad by Anheuser-Busch, CBS refused to show an anti-Bush ad from political activist group Moveon.org and from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). The Moveon.org ad criticised and poked fun at President George Bush for the ballooning national deficit, and the Peta ad promoted vegetarianism through the message that eating meat can cause impotence.
CBS rejected both ads, citing its policy against advocacy advertising, saying the policy is designed to prevent those who can afford advertising from having an undue influence on “controversial issues of public importance”.
But Peta spokeswoman Lisa Lange says: “CBS not only takes advocacy ads, but has shown them during the Super Bowl, including Truth.com anti-smoking ads and anti-drink driving ads sponsored by beer companies.”
AOL sponsored the MTV half-time show that featured Janet Jackson, Kid Rock, P Diddy and Justin Timberlake, and viewers certainly got more than they bargained for. At the end of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s rendition of “Rock your body”, Justin reached over Janet and pulled away part of her costume – revealing her breast.
Nudity on US network television is unheard of and CBS’s switchboards were jammed with angry callers. The performers blamed it on a “wardrobe malfunction” – but the timing is very convenient – Janet Jackson is soon to release an album. The US Federal Communications Commission is investigating the breast-baring incident and it now looks unlikely that MTV will be allowed to produce the half-time show again.
AOL, which prides itself on being a family brand, is also deeply embarrassed and angry about the incident and is in talks with America’s National Football League about refunding part of the amount it paid for the sponsorship and ad package. AOL is understood to have asked the organisation to repay $7.5m (&£4m) of the total $10m (&£5.4m), and is also refusing to honour an agreement to rebroadcast the Super Bowl over the Net to its 25 million subscribers. It is ironic that for AOL, which prevents adult material from being shown to its subscribers and provides strict parental controls for the content it does allow, Janet Jackson’s mishap has since become the most popular search topic on the Net.
In many previous years the actual game at the Super Bowl has failed to live up to expectations, but this year was an exception and the 38th World Series finale will be remembered as one of the most thrilling games yet. An almost scoreless first half was succeeded by a nail-bitingly close second half, with the New England Patriots kicking a field goal (Johnny Wilkinson-style) in the final 60 seconds of the game, beating the Carolina Panthers 32-29.
The ads, which have often overshadowed the game, however, did not live up to expectations and most of the talk around the water-coolers of America the week after the event centred on Janet Jackson’s nipple revelation and the last-gasp win by the Patriots rather than anything the ads had to offer.
Whether this year’s events will put advertisers off splashing out next year remains to be seen but many still believe that when it comes to the awareness generated through Super Bowl ads, you can’t afford not to be there.
Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business writer