New Super Bowl, same advertisers

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Prices putting off potential recruits.

By ANTHONY SALAMONE

Unlike the game itself, there was no clear-cut winner among Madison Avenue’s offerings that aired during Sunday’s Super Bowl, if the polls are any indication.

In fact, advertisers’ efforts seemed to be so ho-hum that even the students in Andrew Bergstein’s marketing classes at Penn State University were unwilling to discuss them.

“It was like pulling teeth to get students to talk about their favorite Super Bowl ads, which was radically different from previous years,” said Bergstein, an instructor at the university’s Smeal College of Business.

But with the economy still shaky, many companies believe it’s too risky to parcel out a big portion of their ad budgets on one event.

Another reason making newcomers think twice is price. The cost for a 30-second spot on the ABC telecast is going as high as $2.2 million, compared with a top price of about $1.9 million in the 2002 Super Bowl. Some companies can’t — or won’t — justify paying the nearly 16 percent price increase.

Increasingly, however, others simply fear that with Super Bowl advertising becoming such a high-profile event, not having a surefire creative hit can backfire in the arena of public and press opinion. Fewer companies are willing to risk the chance that their ad will bomb before millions of eyeballs.

“The Super Bowl has emerged as a highly scrutinized, highly critical advertising event,” said Bill Katz, president and chief executive of New York-based advertising agency BBDO. That agency arguably understands the Super Bowl formula the best, with clients like Pepsi and Visa that advertise every year.

“It’s a huge double-edged sword,” Katz said. “The upside is so big, but the downside is risky. You have 6,000 or 7,000 journalists writing about it. The results can be devastating if the advertising is bad.”

The bottom line, according to media buyers, is that few companies will try advertising during the big game for the first time.

Instead, much of the estimated $200 million of available airtime is being bought by big advertisers that have been there before.

Robert Kutcha understands this perhaps better than the average TV viewer.

In this era of belt-tightening and Enron-style infractions, “companies are being more conservative and taking a closer look at how the hard earned dollars are spent,” said Kutcha, a marketing professor at Lehigh University. His course requirement includes having students watch and gauge the Super Bowl commercials.

About the only area company that has advertised in the Super Bowl has been Masterfoods USA, which makes the M& M candy brands in Hackettstown.

Spokeswoman Bertille Glass could not say Friday whether the company would be airing a commercial during the upcoming Super Bowl.

However, the company ran one spot during last year’s game that Adage.com gave its highest rating — four stars.

In the scene, Adage.com says a weary traveler checks into a chichi hotel, with all its amenities, including the chocolate on his pillow at bedtime. The chocolate turns out to be a neurotic, talking M& M.

The message: when you think chocolates, don’t forget the M& M’s.

Two area companies that distribute consumer products nationally, Bethlehem-based Just Born Inc. and Binney & Smith Inc. of Forks Township, have no plans to advertise.

“We target kids and moms, and the Super Bowl isn’t really our focus,” said spokeswoman Lissette Santana.

It’s sound strategy: Kutcha said when it comes to high-priced ads, corporate executives have to ask themselves two basic questions.

“First, does this make sense for us (to advertise during the Super Bowl)?” Kutcha said. “Secondly, if it doesn’t or even if it does, could the money be spent better in another fashion?

Companies that decide to hawk products do so with at least one motive in mind: their audience is typically held captive by the game for one reason or another.

Kutcha cited as an example one Volvo truck marketing official who spent years convincing higher-ups that the Super Bowl was the place to be — ad wise.

“They reasoned, ‘Where is our customer? Right in front of the TV set,'” Kutcha said.

By last week, ABC had sold more than 85 percent of its advertising inventory for the game, including the entire first half.

The halftime spectacle, formerly owned by dot-com survivor E-Trade, will be sponsored by AT& T Wireless, which relaunched its wireless service platform during last year’s game with the quirky “M Life” campaign.

“We’re seeing interest from advertisers in traditional categories like movies, cars and retail,” said Ed Erhardt, president for customer marketing and sales at ABC Sports in New York. “If there’s anything shocking, it’s not being talked about right now.”

Among familiar advertisers again on display is Anheuser-Busch, which, at nearly five minutes of airtime, will dominate the game. Others include job-search company Monster.com and perennial high-profile advertisers Visa and Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi will be advertising for the 18th straight year. Anthony Salamone can be reached at 610-258-7171, Ext. 3603, or by e-mail at [email protected].