Advertisers, Just Like Falcons, See Prayers Go Unanswered

A lopsided Denver win produces the lowest TV rating for the Super Bowl since 1990.

By GREG JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer

Advertisers who paid an average of $1.6 million for 30 seconds of commercial time during Sunday’s lopsided Super Bowl probably came away as blue as four-time Super Bowl loser Dan Reeves. The broadcast was the lowest-rated Super Bowl since 1990, when the San Francisco 49ers blew out the Denver Broncos 55 to 10. The early viewership rating for Denver’s 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons was a 40.2, down 8% from last year’s 44.1 rating. Given the game’s history of producing one-sided contests, Sunday’s rout was no real surprise for viewers or advertisers. But marketing industry observers say that advertisers, like Atlanta Falcons fans, went into the game with their fingers crossed.

“Advertisers go into the second half hoping for a game that will be competitive, and that they won’t lose eyeballs in the second half,” said Peter Kaplan, co-chief executive of National Media Group, a New York City sports marketing and public relations firm. “Clearly, our preference was for our . . . spot that ran in the second quarter,” said Sandra Deem, president of corporate relations for Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union Corp., which also ran an ad during the final two minutes of the game. “That’s where we vested most of our effort.”

Executives at the World Wrestling Federation say they’re pleased with their first Super Bowl commercial, a third-quarter ad that parodied professional wrestling’s penchant for embellishing its matches with violence and sex. “If I really wanted to put my philosophy hat on, I could argue that maybe what I really want are the die-hard fans who are there in the third quarter,” said Jim Byrne, senior vice president for the Stamford, Conn.-based WWF. “And, of course, if you’re advertising in the first quarter, you have the bulk of the audience there, with all that has to recommend it.”

Football fans who gathered at places like the Legends sports bar in Long Beach whooped and applauded for their favorite commercials, which included spots for Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser and Bud Light.

Tom Perusi, 41, signaled thumbs up for a Budweiser ad about Dalmatian puppies separated at birth. “And the lizards,” he said, referring to the talking reptiles featured in another Budweiser ad, “they’re excellent.”

Other crowd pleasers included a Victoria’s Secret spot touting its online fashion show, and an ad with an enormous Cracker Jack bag. “The ads’ people put a lot of thought into them,” said Manuel Trevino, 38.

“There’s humor in them. They make you laugh. The commercials are part of the program.” Anheuser-Busch, the biggest advertiser during the game with nine spots, also came out on top in two nationwide surveys of Super Bowl viewers. SAA Research of Farmington Hills, Mich., said 30% of viewers ranked Budweiser as their favorite advertiser. And TV Guide said the five most popular commercials in the game all were for Budweiser.

But, as the ratings suggest, the top two teams in the NFL and the best that Madison Avenue had to offer wasn’t enough. Some observers complained that the dearth of action on the field was compounded by a lack of memorable advertising during commercial breaks. “Even though the amount of money being spent on these ads was tremendous, I didn’t see any dramatic, breakthrough advertising,” said Jim Johnson, president and chief executive of Enterprise IG, a New York-based corporate identity firm.

Despite the low ratings, companies that paid record amounts for commercial time maintained that the big game remained the place to be, even during the second half, when it was obvious that the Falcons lacked the horsepower to keep up with the Broncos.

First Union, in its first trip to the Super Bowl, created a new 60-second image advertisement that ran during the second quarter. But, rather than spending heavily on another new commercial to air late in the fourth quarter, First Union ran an existing ad. Deem said the “overall package” was cost-effective because the second ad entitled First Union to additional signage in the stadium. And, while the financial services giant advertised late in the fourth quarter, Deem said “we didn’t purchase the second spot until late in the advertising game, when Fox made us an offer that we couldn’t refuse.”

Times staff writer Denise Gellene contributed to this report.