Most viewers can't recall who made them
By Shannon McMahon UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
A 1997 Dirt Devil commercial showcased Fred Astaire. The company’s sales then fell.
Just as Ford pulls a Super Bowl TV ad before it ever airs, a sampling of other commercials for the big game reveals some unusually tame tactics.
Cowboys herding cats. Fred Astaire dancing with vacuums. Office workers getting tackled by a hefty linebacker.
These were some of the best, and funniest, commercials of the Super Bowl in recent years. But analysts say they failed their most critical test.
Most viewers can’t remember who made them.
“You get caught up in the joke and forget about the brand,” marketing expert Tom Dougherty said.
And with the price of a Super Bowl sound bite inching up ?? it’s now $2.4 million for 30 seconds ?? some marketing strategists are growing skeptical of television’s most expensive advertising venue.
“The common sentiment is, they’re not worth the money,” said Lee Smith, president of the marketing firm InsightExpress. “But the Super Bowl is one of the few chances companies have to reach as many people across any medium.”
With 90 million viewers at any given moment ?? double the audience for the second-ranked Oscars ?? the Super Bowl is super enticing. Advertisers argue that bowl ads pay dividends with media attention, water-cooler chatter and armchair debates during the game.
But critics counter that while the cost of a spot has more than doubled since 1995, the audience size has remained stagnant.
There is no direct correlation between ads and sales, said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. Calkins and others questioned the effectiveness of ads:
Does seeing an ad for a job Web site make you want to post your r?sum? sometime that year? Debatable. Does watching a funny Budweiser donkey or seeing the Osbournes drink Pepsi make you want to brand-jump? Probably not.
“Those Budweiser frogs are a big hit, but tell me how that makes you want to drink Budweiser,” said Dougherty, a managing partner at Stealing Share Inc. The St. Louis brewing company, he said, “has the tiger by the tail. They’re expected by users to be in a Super Bowl.”
While many bowl fans anticipate the ads, their allure is in decline. A study by Eisner Communications said 7 percent of viewers plan to watch the Super Bowl strictly for the commercials. That’s a 2 percent drop from last year.
Even when viewers do tune in, ads often go awry, Calkins said.
“Schick ran an ad in the Super Bowl last year, but data says people recall it as being a Gillette commercial,” Calkins said. “Then there were the cowboys herding cats a few years ago. It was a very funny ad. You look at it as a piece of film. But who was it for? And what was the point? We don’t know.”
It was for EDS, an information technology consulting firm.
Calkins decried the Reebok ad that ran in 2004 and featured linebacker Terry Tate wreaking havoc in an office.
“I never really saw a pair of sneakers in that ad,” he said. “A lot of ads are likable, but you don’t know who they’re for.”
Dougherty argued that some ads are downright frivolous.
“Advertising today is like the hairstyles in the French court,” he said. “They’ve gotten so overdone that they serve no practical purpose.”
Dougherty pointed to ads for Apple, Dirt Devil and Charmin to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the ad blitz.
Apple’s 1984 ad, showing a young woman heaving a hammer at a symbol of Big Brother, is lauded as one of the most influential and groundbreaking commercials in Madison Avenue’s history.
“Apple today has 4 to 5 percent of the market share,” Dougherty said. “Did that ad sell computers? No.”
Dirt Devil showcased Fred Astaire twirling around vacuums in the 1997 Super Bowl. In the second quarter of the company’s fiscal year, sales fell.
In 2004, Procter & Gamble moved into the Super Bowl with an ad for Charmin toilet paper. It was the only product among Proctor’s top brands to decline in volume through the first quarter.
This year’s lineup may be even less memorable, analysts say, without the gaseous horses and crotch-biting dogs of 2004.
Because of last year’s indecency scandal, ads will be more sedate, according to the Fox network, which is broadcasting the bowl.
GoDaddy.com, a newcomer to the Super Bowl pack, is pushing the envelope with an ad that shows a young woman losing her blouse at a hearing on broadcast censorship. The Internet Web site provider is kicking off a $19 million national marketing campaign.
But Fox recently rejected another Super Bowl ad from Airborne because it showed Mickey Rooney’s 84-year-old backside for two to three seconds. Ford decided Wednesday to pull an ad that featured a priest pining for a truck, after hearing complaints from clergy sex abuse victims.