Super Bowl commercials score lots of points

Companies are willing to spend $2.2 million for a 30-second spot in front of a television audience of nearly 100 million

By Damin Esper


Dancing monkeys, the running of the squirrels in Pamplona and Hannibal the cannibal.

That’s right, it’s Super Bowl Sunday again. And even if the game’s a dud — it usually is — millions will plop down their well-cushioned behinds in front of a television to watch the spectacle. And, as always, a big part of the spectacle will be the commercials.

At least 25 companies have spent an average of $2.2 million per 30 seconds to advertise during the CBS telecast of the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants (Channel 5, 3:18 p.m.). For many of those companies, the advertisements will be the centerpieces of their marketing campaigns for the year.

For corporate America, today is Christmas, Good Friday and Easter rolled into one. It can mark the birth, death and resurrection of a company.

If a company gets it right on Super Bowl Sunday, the payoff can be astronomical. Nike’s Air Jordans stormed the marketplace in part because of commercials directed by Spike Lee that debuted during the Super Bowl.

Why? Because it’s the biggest event of the year on American television. By a landslide. According to Nielsen Media Research, the finale of the original “Survivor” drew a 28.6 rating, meaning more than 51 million people watched it. It was the second most watched television show of 2000.

Last year’s Super Bowl got a 43.3 and was watched by more than 88 million people. The Super Bowl has earned a rating of less than 40.0 once in the past 29 years. Nine of the top 20 highest-rated television shows are Super Bowls. Network television audiences have eroded during the past 20 years — but not the audience that watches the Super Bowl.

“Whichever network has the challenge of broadcasting the Super Bowl is going to have an audience of 130 million people,” Fox spokesman Lou Dermilio said. “Whether that’s give or take a few million, you’re at a number where it just doesn’t matter that much.”

“It’s the biggest sporting event for advertising,” said Rich Silverstein, co-founder of San Francisco-based advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. “You’ve got more eyeballs watching the TV than any other time of the year. The general public uses it as three hours of entertainment. Give me the commercials and give me the sporting event. It’s all wrapped up together.”

And the guaranteed audience has led to ever-escalating prices for commercials. According to Advertising Age, a 30-second spot on the first Super Bowl in 1967 cost $42,000, or $216,665 when adjusted for inflation. The cost has skyrocketed during the past few years. In 1995, 30 seconds cost $1 million. In 1998, the price rose to $1.3 million. Last year, it cost $2.1 million.

The advertising rates are relatively flat this year, but there’s a debate about whether that means anything. Part of the drive up in prices the past two years was the boom in the dot-com industry. Seventeen tech firms advertised on last year’s game, which drove up the prices. One company reportedly paid $3 million for its ad.

Some of those companies now are out of business. You won’t be seeing the sock puppet. Many others are sitting this game out, deciding the payoff doesn’t justify the cost. Only three dot-coms will advertise today: E*Trade, and

“Basically, what it means is you’re seeing, without the benefit of the dot-coms, which may have buoyed the market last year, a return to normalcy,” said Dana McClintock, CBS vice president of communications.

“It’s the kingpin of all events. We’re at record levels even without the dot-coms. It went up, but it did not go up by as much.”

Added Dermilio, “It’s really not a secret that the advertising market has softened over the last few months. I don’t think anybody in the industry is surprised. There’s only a finite supply (of commercials), and that helps drive prices up. You remove that factor to a degree and prices go down. The networks existed and the Super Bowl thrived before dot-coms and will in the future regardless of how that industry levels out.”

So what makes a good commercial? Advertisers and advertising agencies generally work on the spots for three or four months before the big event. The production time is consistent with what goes into any commercial, according to Silverstein. But the planning process involves more people and takes a little longer because of the high stakes.

“Entertainment value is very critical,” Silverstein said. “It’s a fine line between entertaining you and getting your message across. It’s a mistake to get noticed but not be relevant. Last year, Christopher Reeve walked. I don’t even know what that was for. I think that’s a bad commercial.”

For the record, it was for a financial services company called Nuveen. The ad bombed. Many disabled rights groups protested the depiction of the quadriplegic actor walking up to a stage to accept an award, calling it insensitive and irrelevant to what the company was selling.

Silverstein’s agency produced the popular “Dancing Monkey” spot for Palo Alto’s E*Trade for last year’s Super Bowl. In the commercial, a monkey dances on a barrel for 30 seconds while two country bumpkins clap along. At the end, the words, “Well, we’ve just wasted $2 million. What are you doing with your money?” are flashed on the screen. The ad will be reprised during today’s game.

“It was wrapped up into the event,” Silverstein said in explaining why the commercial worked. “You have companies like E*Trade that understand the event.”

Michael Sievert, chief sales and marketing officer for E*Trade, said humor is a key component of the company’s marketing strategy.

“Our brand deals with a very serious issue, your financial future, but it does so with a smile and an honesty that’s very true to today’s consumer attitudes,” he said.

“It’s important to us that people don’t just know E*Trade, we want them to like the brand. The Super Bowl is a great venue to build that kind of preference. People love to laugh along with Super Bowl advertisers. It’s the only venue in the whole year where the advertising is just as big a story as the event itself.”

That last point is true, to an amazing degree. There’s at least one Web site ( that’s devoted entirely to Super Bowl advertising. There are clips of famous commercials including the Mean Joe Greene spot for Coca Cola in the ’70s, Apple’s “1984” commercial and all of last year’s ads. There are news stories and press releases touting this year’s advertisers. The site even archived past Super Bowl advertising news.

And it’s not just the Web. CBS showed a special last night called, “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials.” Think about that — a full hour devoted to commercials that aired during past Super Bowls.

“America understands marketing,” Silverstein said. “I’m in advertising and I think it’s strange. America’s a very interesting popular culture country. We have such good lives generally that we can judge marketing as a piece of popular culture. There are other countries that have other things on their hands. We’re in position to enjoy spectacle.”

This year’s spectacle will include many traditional Super Bowl advertisers. Budweiser will return with more of the “Whassup?” guys. EDS’ “Herding Cats” commercial from last year will have a sequel: the “Running of the Squirrels,” parodying the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

MGM will promote the sequel of “Silence of the Lambs,” “Hannibal,” in a first-quarter ad. Make sure to include a nice Chianti with some fava beans in your Super Bowl spread.

MasterCard, Pepsi and Levi’s are some of the other companies that will be represented.

And they will all pay for the privilege. Will it be worth it?

“I used to think it wasn’t worth it,” Silverstein said. “How can anybody spend that much money and think it’s worth it? We don’t have press calling, asking, ‘What are you doing now?’ But now, because it’s the Super Bowl, we get calls.”