Throwing a Dot-Bomb

Blue-chip firms will dominate a Super Bowl commercial lineup that includes just 3 Internet companies

Carolyn Said, Chronicle Staff Writer

It’s going to be a not-com Super Bowl.

A year after spendthrift Internet companies gobbled about 40 percent of the commercial TV time at the annual pigskin extravaganza, advertising at Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28 will return to basics with blue-chip companies hawking familiar products: snacks, soda, beer, cars.

Last year’s big game featured a roster of 17 dot-com advertisers, many of them fairly obscure companies that blew out their marketing budgets and later blew themselves out of business. Just three of those Internet firms — HotJobs. com, and E-Trade — will return this time around.

“The transfer of wealth from naive venture capitalists to television networks is over,” said Bradley Johnson, deputy editor of Advertising Age in New York. “Super Bowl is no place for amateurs or pretenders.”

With the year’s biggest TV audience — 130 million fans in the United States, compared with 20 million households for even top-rated shows like “ER” –the big game commands more than $2 million for 30 seconds of airtime.


But it’s such a marquee event that it’s worth every penny for major companies that want instant buzz — and have business plans to capitalize on it. Some breakthrough ads, such as Apple’s famous “1984” commercial, even attain a kind of immortality.

“It’s instant reach with a mass audience; it’s a singular coming out,” said Tom McGovern, senior vice president and director of sports advertising for media buyer OMD of New York, which snapped up about a quarter of the airtime on behalf of BBDO, its sister ad agency. BBDO created commercials for seven Super Bowl advertisers — FedEx, Visa, Cingular, M&M/Mars, Pizza Hut, Pepsi and Frito-Lay.

Instead of, household names like Anheuser-Busch, Coke, MasterCard, Subway and Reebok will strut their stuff during the 30 minutes of commercials, most of them parcelled out in half-minute slots. Even the Super Bowl virgins are corporate icons like Volkswagen and San Francisco’s Levi Strauss.

And the few unfamiliar-sounding firms are hardly small fry. Cingular Wireless, a $12 billion offspring of two Baby Bells, is already the second- largest U.S. wireless company with 19 million customers. Now it just needs to introduce itself to everyone in America. Accenture is just Andersen Consulting –a $10 billion company — rechristened. It bought four half-minute spots to promote the new name, part of a $175 million campaign.


The biggest commercial blitz is likely to be from the broadcast network CBS itself. CBS is expected to carpet bomb viewers with ads for “Survivor II: The Australian Outback,” which premieres right after the Super Bowl, as well as its other midseason replacements.

CBS reportedly is getting an average of $2.3 million to $2.4 million for each 30-second ad, although some industry sources think the rates haven’t budged from last year’s $2.2 million per half-minute. (Exact prices are difficult to calculate because CBS sells packages with spots in the pre- and post-game shows, as well as the actual gridiron event.)

“It’s the most expensive 30 seconds we’ve bought, ever,” said Anna Brockway, director of marketing for Levi’s in San Francisco, while declining to comment specifically on how much the struggling jeansmaker paid.

The Levi’s half-minute ad, running at the end of the second quarter, launches a new product designed to look like an old one. Re-Issued 569 Jeans are beat-up pants that appear preworn. The ad, called “Jeans Donor,” shows medical personnel stripping the jeans off an accident victim and rushing them to an ailing recipient.


The HotJobs ad will show a ball in a desktop gravity-ball set breaking free and joining a kids’ marble game. Like a pregame ad of a heroic sperm beating its wriggling rivals to fertilize an egg, the theme is individuals marching to their own drummer.

“It means everything for us,” said Richard Johnson, chief executive officer of New York’s, one of the few dot-com advertisers. “It starts our year on the right foot.”

HotJobs and its bigger competitor are returning for a third year of Super Bowl ads, pitting themselves against each other in a kind of Coke-and-Pepsi/Hertz-and-Avis rivalry.

Another dot-com, Menlo Park’s E-Trade Group, is back for its second year as both an advertiser and sponsor of the halftime show.

The three returning Internet companies actually have a reason to advertise at the Super Bowl, experts said.

“The recruiting business and investing are very broad consumer offerings,” said Gordon Hodge, media analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco. “You’re trying to reach people everywhere who are looking for a job” or trading stocks.

In contrast, many in the dot-com crowd last year were pursuing a niche audience — brides-to-be or pet owners, for example.

Last year, three dozen companies vied for attention during the game; this year, it’s expected to be just two dozen, many of which are buying multiple spots to make a bigger splash. Volkswagen and Anheuser-Busch paid extra to be the exclusive car and beer advertisers, for example.


For viewers, that should reduce the clutter. But some observers think it’s a sign of softening economy — those companies presumably got price breaks to buy bigger packages. Another warning sign is that six ad spaces were still available last week.

CBS staunchly maintains it held onto the ad spots as a planned strategy to lure late advertisers, who presumably would pay a premium.

“We will be sold out before kickoff, according to plan,” said Dana McClintock, a spokesman for the network.

Even though much of the advertising space got locked up in late summer and early fall, many of the actual commercials are still in production.

“We’re ahead of the ball because we actually have the ads in hand,” said Elisa Romm, vice president of North America brand building at MasterCard. “I hear there are some companies just going out to shoot their ideas.”

MasterCard will show a new “Priceless” commercial. Romm said she is choosing between one that is typical of the 4-year-old series and another that is “a little bit different.”


Although ad agencies are tight lipped about their plans, some expected highlights include:

— M&M/Mars will promote a new candy called Snickers Cruncher, basically a Snickers bar with crispy rice. The Super Bowl is the kickoff for an expected $40 million ad blitz.

— Reebok’s “Defy Convention” campaign will feature Venus Williams, who has a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with the shoe company — the biggest sponsorship ever for a female athlete.

— Frito-Lay will showcase comedian Drew Carey and ex-NFL players Jim Kelly and John Elway in the culmination of a contest in which one fan will win lifetime tickets to the big game.

— Texas’ Electronic Data Systems will continue its quest to find metaphors that convey how difficult its business is (although it has yet to explain just what its business is). After last year’s cowboys herding cats and this fall’s building an airplane in midflight, it will spring a third metaphor during the Super Bowl but is being coy about the concept until later this week, when it will hold a special unveiling for the commercial.

That’s the thing about Super Bowl ads: They get much more mileage than regular commercials because they’re previewed, reviewed, hashed over by the water cooler. The best of the lot will be on view the night before the big event in a CBS show called “The Greatest Super Bowl Commercials,” culling from 30 years of favorites.

As Tim Spengler, executive vice president/director of national broadcast for Initiative Media North America, a Los Angeles media buyer, put it: “The Super Bowl has the ability to make you bigger than you really are.”

E-mail Carolyn Said at