Censorship, controversy, PR and paranoia at this year’s Super Bowl

PR got the ball rolling for brands featured during this year’s game, but ad content wrangles and a half-time show dispute kept people talking after the whistle blew

On February 5, Detroit played host to Super Bowl XL in which the Pittsburgh Steelers took on the Seattle Seahawks, and the advertisers of Madison Avenue, who had paid an average of $2.5m (&£1.4m) for 30 seconds of airtime, put their work under the spotlight.

This year the game attracted 90.72 million viewers in the US, up from 86.1 million last year and equating to 41.6% of all households, with 62% of 18- to 34-year-olds claiming to watch as much or more for the commercials as for the football. Pre-game PR talking about the ads to be featured was especially strong in 2006, and a new measure of “talkabout factor” meant that advertisers could see the effectiveness of their pre-game PR as well as whether their actual advertising lived up to the hype they had worked hard to create.

In terms of categories of advertisers, the usual suspects were out in force, most of them aimed at the male audience. Beer, cars, movie trailers, fast food and soft drink manufacturers dominated the 54 ads shown around the game. Anheuser-Busch won the USA Today poll of ad popularity for the eighth year in a row with its “Hidden Fridge” spot for Bud Light, featuring a man who had installed a revolving wall to stop his friends stealing his beer while watching the game.

Anheuser-Busch has taken the largest number of ads in the game for a number of years now and continues to score well with its humourous approach, having six of the top ten ads in the USA poll. However, it may be less pleased to hear the findings of this year’s AdBowl, an online survey conducted by US ad agency McKee Wallwork Cleveland, which found that in the under-17 years age category, Anheuser-Busch achieved the top four spots with its Bud Light and Budweiser brands. Sensitivity about youth-targeted alcohol marketing is riding high in the US, and this could take off some of the gloss on the brewer’s creative achievements at Super Bowl XL.

There were a few notable exceptions to the male-targeted ads – a Dove spot from Unilever promoting self-esteem in young girls rated well; a Slim-Fast ad was an interesting contrast to the Burger King, McDonald’s and Taco Bell ads; and there was a promotion for household cleaning brand PS Cleaning Solutions. Certainly these female-targeted ads would not have been wasted on the Super Bowl audience, as over a third of viewers were women, making it the biggest US television event to reach male and female viewers in absolute numbers.

You can talk but do you walk?

From a marketing perspective, one of the most distinctive and interesting aspects of this year’s Super Bowl was the new ability to differentiate between the impact of pre-game PR and the impact of the ads themselves during the game. Recently released research by media monitoring firm Bacon’s Multivision, found that while CareerBuilder, GoDaddy.com and Pizza Hut achieved healthy double-digit shares of pre-game PR coverage, they sank to single digits in the post-game ad recaps. By contrast, brands such as Bud Light, Diet Pepsi and Ameriquest mortgages fostered little interest before Super Sunday (all got less than 4% of the pre-game voice), but their share of awareness after the game soared by 600% or more, thanks to the strength of their ads.

Digital media has helped to extend the shelf-life of Super Bowl ads, and this year, for the first time, the National Football League (NFL) officially made the ads available for watching, for a week after the game, on a number of its properties, including NFL.com and NFL Mobile programmes on Sprint.

Driving traffic to websites has become a key aim for many Super Bowl advertisers, most of whom create specific interactive microsites for their Super Bowl campaigns. According to a ComScore Networks survey, Domain registration company GoDaddy.com enjoyed the biggest spike in traffic to its site, with a rise of more than 1,500% on game day compared with the average on previous Sundays.

As is perhaps to be expected after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) handed broadcaster CBS a record fine of $550,000 (&£314,000) for the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction”, there was a certain amount of paranoia around the Super Bowl broadcast this year. The Rolling Stones’ half time show, sponsored by mobile phone provider, Sprint, was shown on a five-second delay in case of any “unexpected issues”, and some of the more risqué lyrics could only be heard by those at the stadium – the volume was cut for television viewers at sensitive points.

There was plenty of controversy surrounding the game – first over the fact it was a British act headlining the half-time show in the home of Motown. Then GoDaddy was forced to revise its creative work 14 times in order to get approval for broadcast from ABC. (Last year’s broadcaster, Fox, pulled the second showing of GoDaddy’s spot for poking fun at Janet Jackson’s 2004 incident, after it was flooded with viewer complaints.) Coca-Cola also managed to upset a large part of its target audience with its ad for energy drink Full Throttle. It showed a large Full Throttle-branded truck forcing a smaller, Red Bull-branded truck off the road. It was branded irresponsible by the American Trucking Association, whose vice-president of public affairs, Mike Russell, said Coca-Cola was “taking every negative stereotype about the trucking industry and using it to sell a product.”

No easy riders

Infringement was also a hot topic at this year’s Super Bowl. NFL now has copyrights forbidding the use of the word Super Bowl, Super Sunday or almost any other term that directly implies the event itself, so it is getting harder for marketers to get away with the unofficial piggy back route to build an association with the game in people’s minds – especially as lawyers for NFL are ruthlessly protecting their turf. For example, an online gambling company that placed a prominent billboard in Times Square claiming that, “Everybody bets on the Super Bowl at Sportsbook.com” is certain to get more than a warning letter in the post. NFL investigators spent time surfing the Web for trademark violators, as well as bars and restaurants in host city Detroit and in other big sports towns.

While the Pittsburgh team may have had a resounding victory in the actual game, the winner in the commercial stakes was less clear – though digital media and pre-game PR has resulted in longer lives for ads that make an impact on viewers. But, as taking the unofficial marketing route gets officially harder each year thanks to NFL lawyers, the brands will be back to battle it out for victory in Super Bowl 2007.

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