Forget the Super Bowl; Action Lies in What Commercials Fly



Sunday is Super Bowl time, the only televised sporting event where viewers rush to the bathroom during the game so they won’t miss the commercials.

And for good reason. With some 80 million U.S. viewers watching, the event’s advertising lineup has become its own high-stakes competition among marketers to produce the most provocative and of-the-moment ads they can. As such, a look back through Super Bowl commercial history offers an encapsulated glimpse into the industry’s changing sales pitches — and a look at what moved popular culture at the time.

“The Super Bowl has become the American cultural ceremony, the gathering place to see what is big, dynamic and cool,” says Stephen Dessau, chief executive of Track Entertainment Inc., an event and entertainment marketing company based in New York.

It didn’t start out that way. The Super Bowl’s first 13 years were hardly a milestone for advertising inventiveness. In fact, in keeping with the rather austere times, for much of the 1970s commercials during the big game mirrored those shown throughout the rest of the year — a parade of low-glitz spots for cars, household products and food. Still, running the ads wasn’t cheap: An average 30-second advertising spot cost roughly $100,000 in 1970, compared with today’s $2 million-plus price.

It was in the 1980s when advertisers first flexed their creative muscles for Super Bowl advertising. The pioneer was Coca-Cola Co.’s 1980 spot featuring Mean Joe Greene hobbling into the locker room trailed by an eager kid who wants to say hello. The young fan gets the brushoff — until he offers the Pittsburgh Steeler star his bottle of Coke. The commercial, which became a national sensation, shrewdly foreshadowed the decade’s coming obsession with both celebrities and big brand names. Moreover, it showed advertisers the clout of being in the Super Bowl and even persuaded NBC to make a movie based on the ad. While “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid” didn’t win any Emmys, it was the first time in modern history that a commercial inspired a movie.

Then Apple Computer Inc.’s “1984” ad introducing the Macintosh cleared the way for the commercial-as-art era that has since become a game standard. In that spot, directed by Ridley Scott, a female runner throws a hammer at a giant TV screen that is hypnotizing the masses, a nod to George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Like the earlier Coke ad, it struck a nerve with a culture poised to express its individuality through material goods, be it a home computer or luxury vehicle.

For this Sunday’s game, in a nod to the current uncertain economic landscape, the list of Super Bowl advertisers includes a fair helping of household names, such as FedEx, PepsiCo, and Philip Morris, among others. Few and far between are the eccentric dot-com ads that littered the pack in the late ’90s.

Over the years, Super Bowl advertising has reflected the coarsening of society, and sentiment has often been replaced with irony, cynicism and risque fare. “There is a movement towards extremism,” observes David Bushman, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.

While there are still commercials featuring happy kids and cute animals, there is a tendency toward spots that are more heart-racing than heartwarming. For every Anheuser-Busch Co. ad featuring the brewer’s regal Clydesdale horses, there are others showing its infamous frogs being splattered on the back of a truck or electrocuted. In recent years, corporate culture has also became ripe material for advertisers, leading to cynical spots such as’s commercial two years ago in which little kids’ professional goals included wanting to be “forced into early retirement” and “having a brown nose.”

“We used to see lots of sentimental kinds of commercials, but now it is humor more than anything else that makes the needle move,” says Phil Dusenberry, chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and chairman of BBDO New York, one of the largest producers of Super Bowl ads. “Sometimes I’m shocked at the stuff that is allowed on.”

Partly it’s about standing out. With so much hype surrounding the Super Bowl, ad agencies try to outdo each other, both with special effects and their accuracy in pegging the current cultural zeitgeist. As a result, the desire today to create fireworks can muddle the message of the product being pitched. The pinnacle of the phenomenon was perhaps 1999, which saw a rash of outlandish ads from dot-coms desperate to eke out even a smidge of brand recognition. Who really remembers what the point of’s naked guy was? Or Cyberian Outpost’s flying gerbils?

“It is the toughest venue to be successful in because there is a huge pressure to break through and get talked about,” says Alan Adamson, managing director of branding and image consultants Landor Associates, a unit of London-based WPP Group.

Some still debate last year’s “Cat Herders” commercial from Electronic Data Systems Corp., a technology consulting company. The parody of cattle rustlers herding cats across the Great Plains was widely considered one of the game’s most memorable ads, and in keeping with the avant-garde themes punctuating the times. Yet some industry watchers suggest that few viewers remembered the sponsor. “It was an extraordinary bit of filmmaking, but I still can’t remember the company or what service it provides,” says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.

That doesn’t matter, the company says, because the commercial wasn’t meant for everyone — even though it was aired on the most-watched event of the year. “Our target audience is chief executives, chief financial officers and chief information officers and we wanted to hit them in a more relaxed atmosphere,” says Donald Uzzi, a senior vice president at EDS. As for whether the ad worked, David Lubars, president and creative director for Publicis Group’s Fallon, says the spot his group created helped improve awareness of EDS.

With Super Bowl broadcaster CBS, a unit of Viacom Inc., getting more than $2 million for 30-second spots, most advertisers certainly want to make a lasting impression. “The ads have a lot more impact on business and people, and are talked about more and longer than the game itself,” says Bill Katz, president and co-chief executive of Omnicom Group Inc.’s BBDO New York, whose firm controls almost 30% of the entire available ad inventory in Sunday’s game. This includes spots for clients PepsiCo, Frito Lay, Pizza Hut and Federal Express.

Considering that this Sunday’s contest is between two traditionally low-scoring teams — the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens — commercials may be what keep consumers tuned in. Expect a new, funny character named Cedric from Bud Light who tries to cool down a hot date with a cold Bud. Pepsi is pulling in Bob Dole. And EDS is back this year, this time with a commercial for Super Bowl XXXV called “Running with the Squirrels” — a parody of a bull-running day in Spain.

One media company, Trans World International, has even figured out how to cash in on all the advertising hype by putting together a “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercial” show airing Saturday night on CBS. Of the hundreds of ads the company reviewed, almost two-thirds of the finalists were for beer, soda or snacks. And in the online poll for best ad ever, sentiment is beating art as the Mean Joe Greene Coke spot holds a narrow lead over Apple’s “1984.” Trans World is a unit of International Management Group Co. and had to get permission for the ads and pay the actors for its Saturday show.

The true mark of success for a Super Bowl ad may be how widely imitated it becomes. Few commercials will probably ever top last year’s “Wassup” spots for Budweiser, in which four friends use the phrase over and over as a greeting. Parodies became the norm, ranging from an Internet spoof in which Elian Gonzalez and the government agent pulling him out of the closet exchange wassups to Bud’s own spoof featuring parrots mimicking the commercial. One thing is for sure: The Super Bowl is probably not the best place for TiVo Inc. to pitch its ad-zapping video recorders.

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Ad Notes –

Antismoking battle set for the Super Bowl.

At the eleventh hour, American Legacy Foundation, an organization overseeing an antismoking education fund created by the $206 billion settlement between tobacco companies and state governments, has decided to run two commercials during the Super Bowl. Philip Morris Cos. also is running a youth-smoking prevention ad during the game. The foundation’s spots shows a husband whose wife died of smoking-related disease at the age of 46 and a man speaking through an electrolarynx box.

Havas Advertising’s Arnold Worldwide is the shop behind the foundations ads and WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam is creating the work for Philip Morris.

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