30 seconds of fame: To many, commercials are the show


By Debbie Arrington Bee Staff Writer (Published Jan. 25, 2001)

Millions of Super Bowl viewers Sunday will witness history, drama and moments they’ll remember for years to come.

And that’s just the commercials.

So, there’s a little scrimmage between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants that counts for something. But the game within the game — the commercials — may have a much longer impact on our lives.

Whassup? Hey, that greeting wouldn’t have become such a catchphrase if it hadn’t been for its prominent placement by Budweiser in Super Bowl XXXIV last year.

And Apple launched its computer revolution — and solidified its corporate identity — with its famous 1984 spot launching Macintosh.

That sort of success is good as gold, which is why advertisers are willing to spend more money than ever for 30 seconds during Sunday’s game.

Although exact rates are hard to peg because of package deals, the 30- second spots sold for between $2.3 million and $2.4 million each. That’s about $77,000 a second.

CBS sold all 30 minutes of its allotted advertising time — the most its NFL contract allows — making the Super Bowl broadcast a record payday for the network.

Last year, 17 Internet companies spurred sales to $2.2 million per 30-second slot, up from $1.6 million in 1999. But in a sign of the times for the high-tech industry, only three dot-coms are back for 2001.

“Without the benefit of the dot-coms, it’s a real accomplishment that it sold the way that it did,” said CBS spokesman Dana McClintock. “We surpassed all our targets. It’s the highest per-unit return in the history of the game.”

That points to one eye-opening fact for sports fans: It doesn’t matter who plays in the Super Bowl. The quality of the game could be zilch. But the show always will be a winner for TV.

The reason is simple. “It’s the biggest television event of the year — year in, year out,” said McClintock. About 130 million viewers worldwide are expected to tune in.

But what makes some ads winners and others costly duds is not as easy to figure out.

Scott Becher, president of Miami-based Sports and Sponsorships Inc., knows this lesson well. His clients include Gillette, Hershey and Sprint, which are bypassing Super Bowl XXXV for more cost-effective campaigns.

But Becher has learned plenty of Super Bowl basics from past years, namely: Make those 30 seconds count.

“Effectiveness is measured by recall, and during the Super Bowl, you had better be funny, outrageous or stunning if you hope to be remembered,” said Becher. “There is no other programming that gets this much attention for the commercials.

“Fans watch for them, anticipate them, cheer them and jeer them. To be remembered, though, they must strike a chord and hit home to really be effective.”

That’s usually done with humor, said John Antil, a University of Delaware marketing professor who has become a leading expert on Super Bowl ads. He’s studied them at length since 1987.

“About 70 to 80 percent are based on humor,” said Antil.

Federal Express hit the nation’s funny bone with the talk-fast guy and again with the misdirected Stanley Cup trophy and a trip to Oz.

Animals are always good stars, such as Budweiser’s dog actor (the top-rated ad during last year’s game), dalmatians or football-kicking Clydesdales.

But even funny ads may not get the real message — an advertiser’s name and product — across.

Remember last year’s cat herders? Now, name that advertiser.

“(Bill) Clinton named it his favorite ad,” noted Antil. “It was a very funny ad but didn’t say a lot. What was the message?”

Texas-based Electronic Data Systems was happy with its notoriety. And the message: Getting people and technology to work together can be like herding cats.

Sunday, EDS will roll out another blockbuster (at the cost of $6 million just for production): “Running of the Squirrels,” a spoof of Spain’s Pamplona Festival. That’s no bull.

“Humor is effective because everybody enjoys a good laugh,” added Becher. “The challenge is finding the right kind of humor that appeals to the masses.”

USA Today has been tracking Super Bowl ads since 1989, and its list of hits mirrors the commercials’ entertainment value. Not surprisingly, Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and McDonald’s appear often among the most effective advertisers. They’re also among the most experienced.

The fact that these ads are entertaining hasn’t been lost on CBS, which will feature 30 years of “The Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials” in a one-hour special Saturday night.

“They’re almost like movies,” said producer Robert Dalrymple, who loves ETrade’s clapping monkey from last year. “Everybody has a favorite, and it’s all subjective.”

Dalrymple and his staff watched tapes of every Super Bowl game since 1969 for the commercials. “There’s a definite trend,” he said. “After 1991, the whole level of ads — their production value — just escalated. They became much more than commercials.”

In several studies, the all-time No. 1 ad was not funny but distinctive: Apple’s Orwellian 1984 spot for the launch of Macintosh. Directed by Ridley Scott, the commercial (featuring a woman who smashes Big Brother’s televised image with a hammer throw) aired only once. But it made a lasting impact.

“It’s the ‘Citizen Kane’ of Super Bowl spots,” said Dalrymple.

A close second was Budweiser’s long-running Bud Bowl.

Part of the appeal of the Bud Bowl and almost all of Anheuser-Busch’s commercials: They were part of long-running campaigns tied into Super Sunday.

The frogs, for example, didn’t croak just once. Louie the lounging lizard had more than a one-night stand. The “Whassup” guys never shut up.

This year, Anheuser-Busch — the No. 1 buyer and exclusive beer seller with four minutes of ad time — hopes for the same results with its new campaign, featuring a heavy-set dancing man named Cedric.

“A great strategy for success is not to rely exclusively on a commercial by itself to carry the day but to implement an integrated promotion, including public relations, maybe a sweepstakes, in-store displays, and other vehicles that make your programs seem larger than life,” said Becher. “This gives you your best chance to break through the incredible clutter of Super Bowl spots.”

After all, do any other commercials get their own ratings and advance publicity? The Bud Bowl had almost as much hype as the real thing.

Frito-Lay, a Super Bowl regular, will use that concept with its Sunday spots, featuring comedian Drew Carey and ex-NFL quarterbacks Jim Kelly and John Elway in the culmination of a contest where one fan will win Super Bowl tickets for life.

Celebrity endorsements, a mainstay in most advertising, actually can hamstring a Super Bowl commercial.

“You’ve got to have a lot of name and product recognition going in,” said Antil.

Mean Joe Greene’s memorable 1980 “Coke and a smile” spot became an instant classic. Michael Jordan’s 1992 Nike battle with Hare Jordan, a.k.a. Bugs Bunny, worked. So did the teaming of Jordan and Larry Bird in the 1993 McDonald’s shootout.

But several other celebrity bits did not. “They don’t always fit into the humor part,” Antil said.

This year, Reebok will be debuting its first Venus Williams campaign on Super Sunday. The tennis star recently signed a $40 million, five-year contract with Reebok, and her “Defy Convention” ads will flow into the postgame show and CBS’ much-hyped “Survivor: Australian Outback” premiere.

In fact, “Survivor” may be the most advertised commodity come game day. CBS will fit in promotions wherever it can.

Two old companies will be making their Super debuts. Volkswagen bought an exclusive automaker deal, with at least two minutes during the game and more time during the overall broadcast.

Levi Strauss will premiere a serial ad, “a very risky venture,” said Antil. “It may backfire if viewers don’t see all three segments.”

Promoting new “569” retro jeans, the Levi ads spoof organ donors; a dead man’s jeans will clothe a pantless guy. But the original owner isn’t really dead, and he wants his Levi’s back.

One spot can make a company, but more likely it can break the bank. Try to ask the 14 dot-coms that aren’t repeat customers. That’s not easy; half of those companies have folded or have severely scaled back their businesses.

“This is a great example of how relying on Super Bowl spots alone is not a panacea,” said Becher. “It’s not like you can just drop a few million bucks on some Super Bowl spots and expect consumers to rush to the shelves to buy your product.

“But a great Super Bowl execution can jump-start your brand. (Job searcher) Monster.com is a great example of a dot-com that uses the Super Bowl with great success. ETrade is another. They are building an equity over time with their Super Bowl presence.”

Who will win this Sunday? Becher sides with Bud.

“Anheuser-Busch has a great history of surprising viewers with very memorable Super Bowl spots,” he said. “From the Bud Bowl to talking lizards to last year’s ‘Whassup,’ they know how to combine humor with startling creativity. Given their great Super Bowl history, I make them the favorite to win this year’s Super Bowl commercial championship.”