Super Bowl ad rates hit $3 million for 30 seconds

By Steve James

NEW YORK(Reuters) – If folks can go on a TV quiz show to become millionaires and Victoria’s Secret offers a jewel-encrusted bra for $10 million, why not pay $3 million for a 30-second ad spot during the Super Bowl?

A handful of companies are paying just that — nearly double the average for last year’s spots — to advertise their goods and services to an estimated 125 million viewers watching Super Bowl XXXIV next Jan. 30 on ABC television .

ABC spokeswoman Susan Sewell said 60 or so 30-second spots during the broadcast of the National Football League’s championship game have been sold for an average of $2.1 million to $2.2 million.

“A handful were around $3 million,” she said, declining to identify the advertisers. “That’s typical for the Super Bowl, which tends to go higher and higher every year.”

Besides the sky-high price tag, the most notable change this year is the sudden plethora of online “dot-com” companies advertising during the football game, which traditionally garners sky-high audience ratings. , an online auto auctioneer, was the only Internet company to advertise in the 1997 Super Bowl, when 30-second spots on Fox went for $1.2 million. It was the lone dot-com the next year on NBC) when a spot cost $1.3 million.

For last year’s showpiece championship game on Fox, ad space crept up to $1.6 million and ads from two online employment agencies, and , were seen by viewers in between the gridiron action. In addition, sexy lingerie maker Victoria’s Secret aired a promo for an online fashion show it ran a few weeks later.

Now, for Super Bowl XXXIV, there will be at least 13 advertisements for dot-coms and online units of other companies. In wry fashion, the New York Times even wrote that if Beethoven rewrote his Fifth Symphony for the Super Bowl, it would begin: “Dot, dot, dot, com; dot, dot, dot, com.”

“Much of the awareness of can be attributed to our decision last season to advertise during the Super Bowl game,” said Richard Johnson, founder and CEO of the company, which last season spent half its annual revenue on a single Super Bowl ad. It will be back again for next month’s game.

Another advertiser during January’s Super Bowl broadcast will be, which will air a series of ads featuring its Sock Puppet telling viewers how to improve their pets’ lives.

“We feel the Super Bowl is an exciting opportunity for because we have a simple consumer message to deliver, and our brand icon, the Sock Puppet, will break through the clutter,” the company said in a press release.

“I am not surprised that ad rates are going up; the dot-coms are spending huge amounts. This explosion of Internet business has been God’s gift to advertisers,” said Pat Aufderheide, professor of communications at American University in Washington.

“It’s not just $2 million for a 30-second slot. They are creating an event. The 125 million people who may see the ad are amplified by all the subsidiary publicity, like in the newspapers and they reach an elite audience of decision-makers,” she said.

One CBS executive, when told of ABC’s $3 million for spots in the Super Bowl broadcast, said: “Yes, it’s crazy, isn’t it!.” He said that under a strategy instituted in 1997, CBS, which will broadcast the 2001 Super Bowl, is offering some start-up and dot-com companies a package of advertising and promotion slots in exchange for CBS getting an equity stake.

“We get a stake in companies without giving up too much cash,” he told Reuters. “It’s usually a minority equity of 25 or 35 or 40 percent in return for $10 million to $100 million worth of ad time.”

Of course, one-time spots during top-rated TV shows are no guarantee of success. Just ask athletic shoe company Just For Feet , which just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, or vegetarian food maker Gardenburger .

Just For Feet sued its advertising agency over an ad during the last Super Bowl featuring white men drugging a black long-distance runner and taking off with his Nike sneakers. The spot was roundly criticized and dubbed “Just for Racists.”

And Gardenburger Inc.’s financial fortunes have slipped after the company forked out $1.5 million for a TV ad during the final “Seinfeld” show on NBC last year.

The spot was a short-term success, making Gardenburger the top-selling veggie patty in the United States, but recent sales figures indicate the novelty may have worn off.