Who you won't see at the Super Bowl


by Joel Enos

What a difference a year makes. Especially when it comes to the coveted Super Bowl commercial spots.

Last year, 17 dotcom and tech advertisers made an unheard of commercial coup during the biggest sports event of the year. Not only did the industry have the cash — 30 second spots usually run between $2 million and $3 million a hit — to keep up with the usual cast of characters, such as Pepsico’s (PEP) Frito-Lay and General Motors (GM), but they also had the pop culture chops to make it work.

Companies like used car site Autotrader.com, with its hip commercial featuring flipping cars in a sort of virtual cyberspace car lot, reported a jump in site traffic of 414 percent just seconds after the Super Bowl broadcast.

Turning eyeballs into cash

Most companies saw traffic spikes in the days and weeks that followed the broadcast, proving that the ads drew at least eyes if not customers.

But a year later, things are a little different: So far, only two dotcoms, E-Trade (EGRP) and Monster.com, are scheduled to advertise during the Super Bowl. The slump in tech ads seems to be mirroring the overall dotcom downturn. In fact, even companies who did well after the bowl, like Autotrader, are not coming back for a rematch. Why not?

The most obvious answer is that many Net companies that advertised last year aren’t doing anything at all. Former advertisers Pets.com and Epidemic.com, a viral marketing site that showed money being thrown at people in its ad, are just two of the 100-something websites that have bit the dust in 2000.

And many of those still around, such as Britannica.com and Netpliance (NPLI), have too many internal problems to take care of to think about hanging loose on Super Bowl Sunday. Both companies just went through extensive layoffs and are in the process of overhauling their business models.

Still, even Autotrader, which says it experienced the biggest boost of any Net advertiser from the 2000 spot, won’t be returning for more of the action. Although, the reason why is not as doom and gloom as you might expect.

“To be perfectly frank, we really don’t need to,” offers Clark Wood, vice president of marketing for Autotrader.com.

Becoming ‘players’

That may sound like a pat answer, but Charlene Lee, an analyst at Forrester Research, says she believes him. “Last year they were announcing themselves. It was a great way to get their name out there and get in front of investors. It said, ‘I see myself as a player’ and now they are one.”

Adds Wood, “Super Bowl last year was very successful for us – Our overall business catapulted.” But he says that the 2000 Super Bowl ad was only one part of a much bigger sales and marketing plan.

“What makes it different for us, compared to companies who used it as a make-or-break situation, is that we used it for a springboard for the rest of our campaign. At the end of the year, it was a small percentage of our advertising spending.”

Lee backs him up. “[Super Bowl advertising] is part of the mix, not the whole kit and caboodle,” she says. “The same thing for E-Trade and Monster.com, in the end, the Super Bowl ad represents only a single digit percent of their marketing budget.”

Or at least it should represent only a small percentage.

For Autotrader, the idea was to get a big ad out during a major mainstream day, not just to grab customers, but to get visibility from the media, potential partners and other important people who may have been kicking back watching the tube.

Lee says that those watching the Super Bowl are also “investors, and other people that can help raise the business awareness and status of a company.” But Autotrader didn’t throw all its chips into one helmet, so to speak.

“Too many companies bet the farm on the Super Bowl ad,” says Wood. “There’s an old adage that good advertising makes a bad business fail faster.” He points out that a flashy ad and high visibility doesn’t help a business that isn’t planned out well, or is just plain “lousy.”

Lee agrees. “A lot of the ads, well, I couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to be, so I don’t know how the mainstream public would.”

What are they talking about

Even though Wood’s careful not to ad-bash, he says that examples like the town crier — or, as many people put it, “the screaming guy” — in the ad for OurBeginnings, a now-defunct site that sold stationery, were great, but they didn’t leave a clear enough impression about what the site was, or why anyone would care to visit it.

Lee says the “what’s the benefit?” problem didn’t just plague ads on Super Bowl Sunday. “In the first quarter of last year, there were many ads out there that were built around shocking people and trying to outdo each other, but they never told you what the site was or why people should shop there. Even the sock puppet for Pets.com, which was cute, didn’t tell me why I should buy dog food from a website.”

But the bottom line, says Wood, is that “we needed a good swift kick in the rear end to get us going and the Super Bowl did that.”

However this year, Wood says the benefit wouldn’t be as big, and like most companies, Autotrader can’t seem to justify the $2.5 million or so price tag for a Super Bowl ad. “We wouldn’t get anywhere near that kind of value or impact this year.”

Investing in the Bowl

Still, there are some dotcoms who feel they still will get that impact. Monster.com will be going strong for a third year in a row. And E-Trade recently announced that it isn’t just advertising during the bowl; it’s also teaming with MTV to sponsor the half-time show.

In the end, that may be the biggest indicator of where dotcoms are going. Such an alliance suggests that dotcom culture is not doomed after all. Only, it isn’t just dotcom culture anymore, it’s pop culture, or just plain culture.