Super Bowl Ads Look Familiar

By Christopher Stern,

Washington Post Staff Writer Nobody knows if the New York Giants or the Baltimore Ravens will win next week’s Super Bowl, but it is already looking like a blowout for the old economy. The Internet start-ups whose ads dominated last year’s game will take a back seat to some of the biggest advertisers in corporate America, including IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Budweiser.

Of the 17 dot-com company’s that paid between $2 million and $3 million for a 30-second spot in last year’s game, three have gone out of business and a fourth, Netpliance Inc., announced this week that it may be delisted from the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Just three dot-coms, and are returning this year, and they are practically industry veterans now. This is the third trip to the Super Bowl for and, two online job-listing services.

As the most widely viewed television event of the year, with an audience expected to exceed 80 million, the Super Bowl is the advertising industry’s biggest showcase, a place to get noticed and make a splash. CBS Sports, which owns the broadcasting rights to Super Bowl XXXV, says this year’s game could be the most lucrative ever in generating ad dollars.

The dot-com shakeout has left plenty of room for familiar household brands such as Pepsi and MasterCard to again grab the limelight.

Seeming newcomers such as Accenture and Cingular Wireless are just new names for Anderson Consulting and a cellular-phone company owned by SBC Communications and BellSouth.

The wackiest ad from a high-technology company this year may be one actually from an industry stalwart. Electronic Data Systems, a 38-year-old consulting business based in Plano, Tex., grabbed attention during last year’s Super Bowl with a clever commercial depicting cowboys herding cats. Even President Clinton touted the ad, calling it his favorite of the year.

EDS is back this year with a commercial that parodies the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. But instead of rampaging bovines, the commercial features scurrying squirrels. The message behind the ad is that EDS can help big companies hold off smaller, more nimble competitors.

The ad’s quality is critical in making EDS’s multimillion-dollar investment in the Super Bowl pay off, said Don Uzzi, the company’s senior vice president for global advertising.

“If you don’t have great creative [material], stay at home,” Uzzi said.

The EDS ads are the product of months of work by its advertising agency, Fallon Minneapolis.

That is marked contrast with LifeMinders’ approach last year. The Herndon company, which provides e-mail and marketing services, produced its own ad. The firm settled on a plain yellow graphic that declared simply: “This is the worst commercial on the Super Bowl.”

LifeMinders spokeswoman Melissa Radin said the ad led to a surge in new subscribers after the commercial ran 5,000 in the 15 minutes. Radin said it is difficult to determine the long-term effect of the advertisement.

Some advertising executives say the dot-coms wasted their investment in last year’s Super Bowl when they failed to produce more compelling commercials that would appeal to mass audiences.

“I thought the dot-com companies were talking to themselves,” said Paul Schulman, president of Schulman/Advanswers NY, a media buying firm.

However the advertisers fare, CBS already has declared itself the winner of next week’s game. CBS officials say the network has exceeded its goal of selling $150 million worth of advertising during its 10 hours of game-related programming on Sunday. That would be a sizable increase over last year’s performance by ABC, which collected $135 million from its Super Bowl programming.

Sources close to CBS said the network collected an average of $2.3 million per 30-second commercial, compared with the $2.2 million per spot collected by ABC last year.

Some advertising professionals wonder whether CBS’s sales numbers are as super as the network claims. They point out that two weeks before kickoff, CBS still had Super Bowl ad time to sell. At a similar point last year, ABC was sold out.

“As time goes on, I’m sure the price goes down,” said Andrew Donchin, senior vice president and director of national broadcast at Carat North America. Another media buyer, Fred W. Sattler, executive media director at Doner Advertising, suggested that the remaining ads will be sold at “distress sale” prices.

A year ago, it was the hungry dot-coms, flush with venture capital and inflated stock values, that drove up prices for a few commercial spots that had not been sold in the weeks leading to the Super Bowl. Those last-minute buyers ended up paying close to $3 million for a 30-second spot.

Scott McGraw, vice president of CBS Sports sales, declined to comment on whether advertisers were paying premiums this year for the remaining 30-second spots. “I can only tell you that it is robust,” McGraw said.