Super Bowl Ads Aim for Laughs Despite Threat of War With Iraq

By SUZANNE VRANICA and VANESSA O’CONNELL Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Super Bowl advertisers are betting on humor, celebrities and animals for this year’s big game, despite the threat of a possible war with Iraq.

The nation’s largest tax-preparation firm, H&R Block Inc., is offering up a spot featuring country singer Willie Nelson, who in the past has experienced serious tax troubles. In the first scene, the makers of a faux shaving-cream company offer Mr. Nelson the opportunity to be their product spokesman.

“It’s not about the money, this is Willie Nelson,” sniffs Mr. Nelson’s agent. In a separate scene, Mr. Nelson’s accountant tells the country singer that he owes $30 million to the Internal Revenue Service because of tax issues.

Moments later, Mr. Nelson appears with a face lathered with shaving cream. The commercial promotes H&R Block’s Double Check Challenge, where H&R double checks three prior tax filings free of charge. Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Campbell-Mithun agency created the commercial.

Pfizer Inc.’s Trident gum parodies its boast that “four out of five dentists surveyed would recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum.” The new commercial, created by WPP Group PLC’s J. Walter Thompson, is first in a series that explores the fate of the fifth dentist. In the Super Bowl ad, he is attacked by a squirrel, according to industry executives.

This also will be an opportunity for preaching abstinence, with commercials that offer a don’t-smoke/don’t-take-drugs message.

Philip Morris Cos.’ youth-smoking prevention department will run an antismoking spot in the second quarter, created by Young & Rubicam, a unit of WPP Group. And the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy likely will again advertise during the game. The agency was pleased with the results of the commercial that aired during 2002’s Super Bowl.

“Last year, we bought on the Super Bowl and it had a tremendous impact with the audience,” said a spokesman for the government agency. By law, Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, which will air the game Jan. 26, is required to cover at least half of the cost of the antidrug public service effort with airtime of matching value. Super Bowl commercial time this year has been selling for about $2.2 million per 30-second spot.

The network has been pitching advertisers on the notion that they can purchase time slots that are 60 seconds or 90 seconds long. The extra time lets marketers present mini-films in their ads and, theoretically at least, get more creative during the spots. This year, General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac has bought a 60-second block of time, as have Levi Strauss & Co. and Visa USA. Sony Corp. bought a 60-second block and three 30-second spots.

Finally, this will be a big game for hoopster Michael Jordan, who will get double play. In addition to appearing in a commercial for PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade, he will also appear in a commercial with film star Jackie Chan on behalf of Sara Lee Corp.’s new tagless Hanes T-shirts.

Write to Suzanne Vranica at [email protected] and Vanessa O’Connell at vanessa.o’[email protected]