The Super Bowl's Only the Kickoff
Advertisers have learned that there’s more to a successful campaign than a spot on the Big Game.
By Terry Lefton
NEW YORK – Advertising during the Super Bowl is the easiest way to reach the greatest number of viewers in the shortest amount of time. When you add the game’s nearly hypnotic power to attract TV’s biggest audience to the fact that it’s the only show during which viewers pay as much attention to the commercials as the programming, it’s easy to see why some of America’s biggest advertisers – Budweiser, Federal Express and Pepsi, to name a few – are only too happy to pony up $2.5 million for a spot during this year’s game. And it’s also easy to see why they return to the Super Bowl year after year.
Mingling among the regulars during last year’s game was a new breed of advertiser: Some 17 dot-com and tech companies blew the bulk of their marketing budgets for 30 seconds during the Big Game. The results were mixed: Three are returning for this year’s game on Jan. 28, 11 decided against it and another three have shut down. As the now-defunct Computers.com, Epidemic.com and Pets.com (IPET) learned, Super Bowl advertising is not a magic potion.
“Anybody who took the Super Bowl as a make-or-break strategy was extremely foolish,” says Clark Wood, marketing VP at AutoTrader.com, which advertised during the Super Bowl last year but is not returning this year.
Last year’s dot-com ad boom was underwritten by venture capital funding that seemed to have no strings attached except a mandate to “establish the brand.” Given that atmosphere and the perception that the first Super Bowl ad is a rite of passage for any developing brand, it’s easy to see why some startups put all their chips on a Super Bowl spot.
The frenzy hit such a pitch a year ago that MasterCard, which purchased an ad in this year’s game for the third time in four years, opted out. “The advertisers trying to use the game to establish themselves drove up the price, and we didn’t need the Super Bowl to establish our brand,” says chief marketing officer Larry Flanagan. “So the sober thing to do was sit out.”
The bottom line is that one commercial – even one watched by the Super Bowl’s audience – won’t establish or save a business. “It takes more than one good commercial to create a brand, even assuming you get one of the best ads of the year,” says John Elder, president of the interactive division of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which counts E-Trade among its current Super Bowl clients. What it takes is a consistent ad campaign. “There are dozens of memorable campaigns that launched on the Super Bowl, but very few that worked began and ended there,” says John Collins, who as the NFL’s senior marketer is working on a Super Bowl ad for the league itself.
That’s true of the three dot-com returnees – E-Trade, HotJobs.com (HOTJ) and Monster.com. All are making the world’s most expensive TV ad just one portion of a marketing package. HotJobs is developing a viral campaign in which an e-mailable video game will pick up the theme of this year’s Super Bowl spot. E-Trade is returning as sponsor of the halftime show and is putting its logo on cushions that will cover every seat at the game.
“The Super Bowl puts our message and brand top-of-mind, and our direct marketing and promotional engines make the sale,” says E-Trade’s Mike Sievert, chief sales and marketing officer. During the first quarter of last year, E-Trade hit record highs in site traffic, revenues and new accounts.
Meanwhile, AutoTrader is now spending money on other sports broadcasts such as NCAA basketball and Nascar. “The Super Bowl gave us a big kick-start, but now we don’t feel it will give us the same kind of value,” says Wood. “So we are happy to sit on the sidelines.”