Anheuser-Busch agonizes over the $30 million that it's spending on the Super Bowl


Hey Bud, What’s It to Ya?

By Melanie Wells

A TUXEDOED VETERINARIAN ducks out of a black-tie party in St. Louis’ city hall and bolts into the night. He heads to a farm, where he arrives in time to assist with the birth of a wobbly Clydesdale foal. Afterwards he strolls out to the paddock to congratulate the Clydesdale sire, as fireworks explode overhead.

This everyday miracle of birth and sacrifice is supposed to make you want a beer. A Bud, to be precise. It’s also supposed to make Anheuser-Busch jump out of the crowd of thirty-some marketers during the year’s most significant advertising spectacle–Super Bowl XXXIV. This 60-second commercial is being screened in the Super Bowl war room at Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St. Louis. “It’s emotional,” observes Robert Lachky, vice president of brand management.

It had better be more than just heart-tugging. As the event’s largest advertiser, Anheuser-Busch will pay ABC $17 million for ten 30-second spots. (Rates depend on an advertiser’s relationship with a network and ad placement in the game. Some latecomers this time around reportedly had to pony up $3 million per 30-second spot.)

All told, the brewer has had 400 people at its ad agencies and production companies working on and off for six months on what to broadcast during those five precious minutes. Their labor and expenses will push Busch’s total investment closer to $30 million.

That investment buys several guarantees. First, Anheuser-Busch gets the coveted first commercial break after kickoff, when viewers are most alert. Second, it’s the only national beer advertiser during the game. Finally, ABC sportscasters will mention the Budweiser blimp (hovering over the enclosed Atlanta football stadium) four times during their Super Bowl telecast.

But there are risks. Anheuser-Busch wants to exploit the event to position Budweiser as a more upscale brew–instead of one better known for its quarrelsome lizards. Marketing chief August Busch IV hopes the Clydesdale spot will help the brewer make a classy stand against the eye-grabbing ads of such Weblets as and E-Trade. But he’s having a hard time letting go of Louie the lizard and friends. While the concept’s a little tired, it still gets a laugh. “There’s a bit of a balancing act going on,” says Busch. “We need to make our ad formula work for a more sophisticated Budweiser.”

Anheuser-Busch will pay ABC $17 million for ten 30-second spots.

You might not know it from the war room’s poster-size photo of a rhesus monkey slumped against a tree branch. The simian face belongs to Marlon Brando, who was to utter just one line in a Super Bowl ad–“Bud-weis-er,” delivered in a Godfatherish rasp. “Brando liked the idea of a commercial initially, then decided the concept was not right for him,” says Lachky.

Busch and Lachky haven’t given up on the lighter side. They’re still tempted to air a spot from Omnicom agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners about a turtle who’s running for president of the United Swamps of America. Busch likes the idea in an election year, but appreciates the downside. “Every time we’ve tried political themes, we alienate some party or group,” he says. “With a stroke of a pen, things for our business can change.”

So goes the intense process of selection. In all, Anheuser-Busch had some 30 commercials produced from 70 concepts pitched for the Super Bowl. This month they were screened for some 300 people in focus groups–and for Busch’s father, Chief Executive August Busch III, who will appear (sans monkey costume) in a spot. Commercials can be nixed up to the last minute.

Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl ad scramble started in earnest in early December when three Chicago agencies–Omnicom’s DDB Worldwide, the Leap Partnership and Fusion IdeaLab–pitched final storyboards. At that time, Lachky drew up a list of where the A-list spots might go in the game. The list has changed every few days as casting results and finished work rolled in.

The best stuff, in addition to DDB’s Clydesdale spot, could include an act that might raise eyebrows: A man who’s being shot from a cannon into a net becomes a human suppository for an elephant when his partner is distracted by a Bud Light vendor. “That’s a million laughs,” Lachky says. Any concern that ABC might not accept the ad, considering that last year Fox nixed a commercial in which an elephant sat on its cage cleaner? “Their spot was cruder, I think,” he says.

In another spot, a mountain cabin’s refrigerator is raided of Budweiser. Tracks leading away seem to implicate nearby fishermen. But in the trees, we see a moose with boots and bottles of Budweiser dangling from his antlers. Lachky pauses over the storyboard, asking, “Do you have to have the beer hanging from the antlers? Does that look a little stupid?”

Ah, yes–stupidity. “The Super Bowl has become an entertainment derby,” complains Jay Schulberg, retired chief creative officer of the True North ad agency Bozell. “The whole thing is a colossal waste of money.” At more than $50,000 a second, you have to wonder. A successful spot can rally distributors and dealers, even punch up sales. But a Super Bowl fumble can be disastrous. In 1997 Holiday Inn aired a spot that was supposed to tout the chain’s $1 billion face-lift–featuring a guy who’d had a sex-change operation. But it so enraged some franchisees that Holiday Inn canned it 48 hours after it aired.