Advertisers' game plan is to entertain, amuse

By Michael McCarthy and Theresa Howard USA TODAY

Maybe they should call it the Comedy Bowl.

Big marketers are preparing a lineup of stand-up comics, stupid pet tricks and over-the-top humor during Super Bowl XXXV.

Advertising is usually serious business. But Super Bowl commercials are more about show business. Consumers want to be entertained by broad humor and famous faces.

“The model gets thrown out on Super Sunday. You’re not informing or persuading; you’re entertaining,” says Bob Lachky, vice president of brand management for Anheuser-Busch.

“But in this day and age, if you’re entertaining, you’re also persuading,” he adds.

The dot-com crash brought a return this year to an advertising Pro Bowl.

Gone are most of the dot-com rookies from last year. Even the Super ad rookies this year are veteran marketers such as IBM, Levi’s and Volkswagen.

The formerly highflying dot-coms, meanwhile, are as grounded as the St. Louis Rams. Web and tech companies account for only three advertisers vs. 17 last year.

The attempted takeover of the Super Bowl by New Economy upstarts “woke up” traditional advertisers and made them come back to the game, Lachky observes.

Take MasterCard. The longtime Super Bowl advertiser is back after a year on the bench. Larry Flanagan, chief marketing officer, admits he took a pass in 2000 after Super Bowls started looking to him like an ugly “scramble for brand awareness among unknown brands.”

“We figured it was better to step back and let the brawl happen. This year we see it turning back into a high-quality media event with high-quality, well-known brands.”

The return of the deep-pocketed marketers and demise of the dot-coms means fewer advertisers splitting up 60 in-game commercial slots: about 31 companies vs. 36 last year. The going rate: a record $2.3 million for each 30-second slot. CBS expects to reap $200 million in national and local ad sales from Super Bowl XXXV — not counting an additional $50 million from the premiere of Survivor: The Australian Outback after the game.

Here’s a USA TODAY scouting report on the key players, trends and possible touchdowns and fumbles you’ll see Sunday:

* The champ. Anheuser-Busch has won Ad Meter, USA TODAY’s exclusive consumer poll, two years in a row with “Rex” the dog and Dalmatian pups separated at birth. A-B is the biggest advertiser on the game, with 4 minutes of commercial time. The brewer is fielding a lineup of seven Budweiser, Bud Light and responsible drinking spots. A-B uses the first spot after kickoff for a humorous dating disaster starring comic “Cedric the Entertainer” from the Spike Lee film The Original Kings of Comedy. The others: “Otto the Dog” raids the refrigerator; half-time entertainers ‘N Sync go “door to door” to thank parents for warning kids about underage drinking; a cute dog goes on an intergalactic journey. And yes, “Whassup?!” will be “part of the game in some form,” according to Lachky. But A-B is planning some surprising “twists.”

* Longtime champ. After winning seven USA TODAY Ad Meter contests — including five in a row from 1994-98 — Pepsi is hungry for another win. It might be able to pull it off with 3 minutes of humorous commercials. Former presidential candidate Bob Dole spoofs himself. Two vending machines continue to demonstrate the rivalry with Coca-Cola and a preference by convicts for the blue can.

* The wild cards. EDS and VW could be contenders, too. EDS will stage the humorous “Running of the Squirrels” sequel to the popular “Cat Herders” spot from last year. VW will try to bring some respect to much-maligned automotive advertising. Car company ads typically score poorly with viewers.

* The oldest Super Bowl rookies ever? What a difference a year makes. Last year, almost all first-time advertisers were dot-coms such as, and (all out of business).

This year the rookies are big names: Levi’s, Volkswagen, Target, Motel 6, Diet Dr Pepper, Dentyne Ice, financial company Invesco and Accenture, the new moniker of the former Arthur Andersen Consulting.

* Head-to-head matchups. The matchups won’t just be on the field. Two of the USA’s largest wireless carriers — Verizon Wireless and Cingular — meet helmet-to-helmet. Visa’s “Everywhere you want to be” ads square off against MasterCard’s “Priceless” effort. In cyberspace, battles Movie studios MGM, Columbia Pictures, Universal and Warner Bros. all tout upcoming movies.

* Who let the dogs out? Consumers have voted commercials starring funny four-legged critters as the best commercial in four consecutive Ad Meter polls. The Super Bowl looks like Animal Planet again this year. E-Trade brings back its dancing monkey as a cowboy. Squirrels race through a Spanish town for EDS. A-B has not one but two dog spots. Accenture takes the creature trend to the limit: It has bacteria.

* D-j‡ vu all over again. Every year the best advertisers and ad agencies in the world strive to be creative. Every year, separate advertisers come up with the same creative ideas. Last year, both WWF and featured brawling women. This year, both Visa and Accenture feature multiplying rabbits.

* How’d they do that? Get ready for a special-effects bonanza. Visa shows a woman vacuuming up and throwing out her slob of a husband. It may look like there are hundreds of animals involved in EDS’ “Running of the Squirrels.” But the shoot used only six real critters; the rest are computer-generated, says David Lubars of Fallon. Some advertisers still do it the hard way: Visa cast 350 real rabbits for its Super Bowl commercial set in a pet shop, according to Liz Silver, senior vice president of advertising. “Animals are cute and appealing. People remember them,” she says.

* Recycling bin: Marketers usually make new spots for the big game. But there will be plenty of reruns this year. IBM is airing a 60-second spot that’s aired on TV. Dentyne Ice is paring down an existing spot for a 15-second slot. Diet Dr Pepper is running its funny Riverdance spoof, already on air.

Why not make a new spot for the biggest ad event of the year? Usually because the advertisers bought time at the last minute. IBM and Verizon Wireless both claim they got “bargain” prices with the last-second strategy. “Prices vary according to placement and package,” counters CBS spokesman Dana McClintock. “What’s most important is we exceeded our overall revenue targets for the day.”