Super Bowl blues for dot-coms

By Jane Weaver MSNBC

Was the biggest ad blowout of the year a dot-com curse?

If there was one thing that epitomized Internet excess, it was last January’s Super Bowl XXXIV, better remembered as the “Dot-com Bowl 2000.” But for most of the 17 dot-com advertisers, it was simply a bad call.

IT WAS 6 a.m. Friday morning in Atlanta on Jan. 28, 2000 and Mike Ford, then president of was having a surreal moment. Super Bowl XXIV, a showdown between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans, was two days away and here was Ford, a former software company executive, preparing for his 15 minutes of dot-com fame an interview with NBC’s “Today” show correspondent Ann Curry. (MSNBC is a Microsoft – NBC joint venture.), the Web site Ford started with partner Mike Zapolin hadn’t even launched yet and only a month before had received $5.8 million from a handful of online entrepreneurs, including New York financier Saul Steinberg and Jed Smith, the founder of Yet here were Ford and Zapolin, unknowns in the morning show world of self-help gurus and celebrities hawking movies, fielding questions about their company an Internet site with a staff of 15, no sales and no real customers on national TV.

What Ford and did have was a commercial. A 30-second ad a self-referential, low-budget number starring Ford and Zapolin as themselves that had been completed three days before and was scheduled to air during the Super Bowl, the only TV event of the year watched as much for the commercials as for the action on the field. In an unprecedented me-too frenzy for the biggest ad blowout of the year, and 16 other Internet-related companies coughed up as much as $3 million for their 30-seconds in the spotlight, prompting a flabbergasted media to dub Super Bowl XXXIV the “Dot-com Bowl.”

Super Bowl XXXIV was better known as the Dot-com Bowl. Seventeen Net companies coughed up $2 million for 30 seconds in the spotlight, an investment many now consider a symbolic precursor of the dot-com flameout. Which of the companies folded, who’s still standing and how do the suvivors feel about their Super Bowl day in the sun?

Agillion Commercial: Queen’s “We are the Champions” sung off key by regular people. Recap: B2B database firm’s future looks bright in booming application service provider industry. Commercial: Couple imagines what kind of car they want. Play video Recap: Virtual used car lot pulls IPO plans in November. Commercial: Deep thoughts from Francis Ford Coppola and Seal. Recap: Restructures, cuts one-quarter of staff. Looks to wireless future and free publicity with the “Annotated Dennis Miller,” for football fans. Commercial: Home movie style ad stars the company’s co-founders. Play video Recap: Disabled. Being acquired by Computers4Sure, online computer supplies seller. Commercial:Man lost in swirling maze. Recap: Soft ad market tackles parent Dow Jones & Co, which issues fourth-quarter warning.

Epidemic Commercial: Bald guy gets paid for going to the men’s room. Recap: Closed in June. E-mail marketer burned through $8 million in funding before catching skittish investor virus. Deadly.

e*Trade Commercial: Dancing chimpanzee; ER patient with money coming “out the wazoo;” basketball player wants to dance. Play video Recap: Rocky market hard for online brokerage firms, but outperforms rivals Ameritrade and Datek. Commercial: Samuel L. Jackson is the voice of “the hand,” the symbol for this job posting site. Play video Recap: Strong revenue growth. Head-to-head battle against rival brings online job recruiter back for its third Super Bowl sponsorship.

Healtheon/WebMD Commercial: Muhammed Ali Recap: Online health care site posts steep losses, plans to cut 8 percent of workforce by end of 2001. Commercial: Smarmy hustler pokes fun at rivals Hotjobs and Recap: Internet job posting site’s share value down 70 percent. Letting its rivals blow their budgets in Super Bowl superfumbleV.

LifeMinders Commercial: Worst commercial in the Super Bowl backed by badly played Chopsticks. Recap: Profile-based e-mail marketer posts solid revenue growth, but stock price tumbles nearly 40 percent.

Microstrategy Commercial: Four pre-game spots and 1 during game. Software helps man foil a credit card thief and women trade stocks. Recap: Sidelined. Software company’s top executives pay $11 million to settle federal regulators’ fraud charges. Stock plunges 75 percent. Commercial: Black-and-white ad with quotes from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Play video Recap: Media Metrix top-ranked job search site with 4.9 million visitors in November.

Netpliance Commercial: Dallas cheerleaders hawk Internet appliance. Recap: Injured reserve. Internet appliance maker rejiggers business model to sell machines to ISPs rather than consumers, cuts staff. Commercial: Man defeats financial chaos monster in his laptop with help from finance site. Recap: Costs of developing the personal finance site doesn’t stop parent Ameritrade from turning small profit in fiscal fourth quarter.

OurBeginning Commercial: Angry brides fight over stuff Recap: Online stationary store burns through $7.5 million, new business model focuses on sales to retailers.

Oxygen Media Commercial: Baby girls in hospital raise tiny fists, introducing new cable channel for women. Play video Recap: Cable rollout sluggish, Web sites slashed, but $100 million cash infusion revitalizes women’s convergence network. Commercial: Sock puppet sings “If you leave me now” to cat, dog, turtle. Play video Recap: Closed Nov. 7. Cute, pricey commercials sends pet store to the dog house. Web address now owned by

The founders had sunk more than half of their fundingcash upfront into buying a commercial spot in the Super Bowl, a game that would be ultimately be watched in more than 150 countries, making it the 5th most popular program in television history. Following the pre-game “Today” show appearance, Ford and Zapolin would chat up Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the Monday after the game. for Wall Street”It was the crowning moment in our company,” says Ford. “We played a $50 million brand game with 3 million bucks and won.”

In the immediate days after the game, some 500,000 visitors stormed the site. All those viewers, all that attention. A sure-win proposition, right? Wrong.

In the long-run the dot-com mania around the Super Bowl proved to be costlier than the cash ABC demanded from the first-timers. Nearly a year, a Wall Street dive and an Internet implosion later, many of the dot-com advertisers from Super Bowl XXXIV are on the disabled list either in the midst of restructuring, a business model overhaul or simply out of business.

Of the 17, only three dot-coms are returning as sponsors of Super Bowl XXXV: half-time sponsor e*Trade and online job recruiters and

In the meantime, has dwindled to a single employee and is being acquired by Computers4Sure, an online computer seller more interested in the catchy Web address and the company’s 800-number than in high-profile, image-building TV commercials. WHAT WENT WRONG?

A clip from’s 2000 Super Bowl commercial “Don’t Go.”

Unquestionably the Super Bowl guarantees an advertiser a huge TV audience; it’s a beacon for America’s biggest brands. So why does it work for Mountain Dew or Budweiser, but for the most part failed for the Internet companies?

“The [dot-coms] didn’t register as brands even though they spent the big money,” says Mark Brauenstein, co-author of “Deep Branding on the Internet.” “The Super Bowl should be one tactic a company uses to get its business across.” used the Super Bowl to kick-start the launch of its used-car buying site, but continued airing the commercial throughout the year and later sponsored NFL post-game shows, says vice president of marketing Clark Wood.’s 2000 Super Bowl commercial.

“The Super Bowl was a big-bang strategy, but we were going to continue to push beyond that,” says Clark Wood, vice president of marketing. “We continued to spend money in broadcast to sustain the momentum.”

For Super Bowl mainstays like Budweiser, the game is a showcase for new ad creative, back it up with on-going promotions or sweepstakes.

“It’s a marketing tool additive to fundamentally sound communications plan,” says Alan Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, a branding, corporate identity and consulting firm in New York. “It’s never the whole ball of wax.”

For the dot-coms spending more money in the Super Bowl than they had in sales, the ball of wax melted in April with the Nasdaq crash. Funding dried up, potential business partners shied away from profitless companies and the Super Bowl madness came to symbolize Internet excess. A LOGICAL RETURN

Richard Johnson, chief executive of Hotjobs, still feels some bitterness over last season’s dot-com frenzy.

“It sold out almost immediately,” says Johnson. “We had to pay full price.”

Even so, the job postings site had its most successful quarter immediately following the game and will return to the big game for the third time with a new commercial in the first break after half-time.

“The first quarter is hiring season and it’s a job changing season,” says Johnson. “I feel very justified in the logic behind why we’re advertising in the Super Bowl.” is also back in January with two 30-second spots, one airing in the 1st quarter and one in the 4th quarter. The commercials take more entertaining creative approach from its previous somber, poetry-quoting ad, says Peter Blackwell, vice president of marketing.

In Blackwell’s view, people were already familiar with the online job recruiter and didn’t associate it with the other dot-coms. “There were a lot of companies trying to launch a brand using the Super Bowl only,” says Blackwell. “It’s been only one component of our overall marketing plan,” which included sponsorship of the summer Olympic games.

The climate around Super Bowl XXXV, airing on CBS on Jan. 28 is very different. CBS claims about 80 percent of the available spots are sold, but top prices are reportedly holding flat at $2.2 million. A slowing economy is chilling advertiser budgets across the board.

“As we enter this next year, marketers are far more prudent about their investments, not just regarding the Super Bowl,” says Larry Kimmel, chairman of Grey Direct, one of the largest direct marketing agencies.

Nevertheless’s Ford remains upbeat about those moments of Super Bowl glory and TV morning show fame.

“I would do it again,” he says. “After the Super Bowl, I would have spent money a little differently, if I had known it would be the last money we would get. But I would have done the Super Bowl.”