A Return to Humor for Super Bowl Ads


By Catherine Valenti ABCNEWS.com

The news might be all doom and gloom, but this year’s Super Bowl commercials are expected to stick to their traditional humor. A preview at some of the ads slated for Sunday’s game.

The nation may still be suffering from post-Sept. 11 trauma, nagging recession, rising unemployment and outrage over the Enron debacle, but you won’t know it from this Sunday’s Super Bowl commercials.

Though a wave of sentimental patriotism swept through the advertising world in the months following Sept. 11, many commercials slated to run this Sunday will return to the humorous themes that Super Bowl commercials are so well known for.

Among the wacky Super Bowl advertising hijinks that viewers can look forward to include a look at the Kafka-esque world of tax laws from famed film directors the Coen brothers, BattleBots fighting a refrigerator filled with a Bud Light and a montage of Britney Spears’ Pepsi commercials, in which viewers can vote for their favorite.

“The advertising will reflect its usual hallmark of sense of humor and extravagance,” predicts Stephen Novick, vice chairman and chief creative officer of advertising firm Grey Global Group. “I think people will actually throw caution to the wind and actually enjoy themselves.”

Some Advertisers on Sidelines

With often record-breaking audiences, the Super Bowl has long been known as one of advertising’s premiere venues, with networks broadcasting the event charging top dollar for 30-second spots.

This year, tough economic times have narrowed the slate of advertisers willing to fork over the $2 million average price for a 30-second spot during the game, which will be aired on the Fox network. Indeed, that price is down slightly from the $2.1 million average that CBS commanded during last year’s Super Bowl.

And much to the chagrin of die-hard fans, Fox Sports will air its pre-game show starting at 1:30 p.m. – 2 1/2 hours later than the last time the network televised the event in 1999 – because of fewer commercials.

But even though the days of dot-com companies spending half their revenue on one Super Bowl spot are long gone, many companies are using the event to get their message out, and will be using humor to rise above the din.

Is That Your Tax Return in the Wood Chipper?

First-time Super Bowl advertiser H&R Block is launching a commercial during the first half directed by the Coen brothers, known for their quirky films like Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In the spot, a group of bored workers at their desks listen to a man drone on and on about the government’s new tax laws that go into effect this year.

The idea came about when the tax preparer’s advertising firm, Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun, showed H&R executives a clip from the Coen brothers’ film Hudsucker Proxy, saying they wanted to recapture the ominous mood of the movie. Figuring that nobody better than the directors themselves could recreate the same atmosphere, the agency decided to ask them if they would be interested in directing the spot.

“They don’t do that many commercials, so we were very excited to get them to do a commercial,” says H&R Block’s chief marketing officer David Byers.

Denver-based submarine sandwich chain Quizno’s is also making its Super Bowl debut with a humorous spot showing respondents in a taste test that is rigged by their generic competition. The spots show respondents being hassled by the focus group’s facilitators when they pick the generic sub over Quizno’s toasted submarine. The message: you have to fix a taste test to get people to pick an ordinary sub over Quizno’s toasted sandwiches.

The company, which paid $1.9 million for a 30-second spot in the game’s first quarter, doubled its advertising spending this year to introduce the growing chain to a wider audience.

“We have a huge opportunity,” says Quizno’s president and chief executive Rich Schaden. “There’s a very large percentage of those people who don’t know who we are and what we do yet.”

Bud Is Back

Perennial advertiser Anheuser-Busch will also return to the Super Bowl, buying eight to 10 spots for a total of five minutes of advertising – the most of any advertiser this year. The beer producer will feature humorous spots for its Bud Light brand as well as a mix of funny and more serious commercials for Budweiser beer.

In one spot, a refrigerator fighting with a group of BattleBots opens up its door to reveal an all-powerful bottle of Bud Light. Another Bud Light commercial features the character Cedric the Entertainer trying to pick up women in a bar. Budweiser will continue to use its “True” campaign as well as a more emotional one featuring the company’s Clydesdale horses.

“You’ve got a nice mix, a lot of humor, a lot of emotion, and there’s a little something for everybody,” says Budweiser’s vice president of brand management Bob Lachky.

Other companies are using interactivity to drive consumer interest in their ads. Pepsi will run a 90-second spot in the first quarter featuring clips of its commercials through the decades, only featuring pop princess Britney Spears. Viewers can vote for their favorite Britney ad online, and the winner will run in the second quarter.

Levi’s is also getting interactive. The jeans maker let viewers vote online for their favorite of three Levi’s ads on its Web site, and will air the winner during the second quarter of the game.

As for dot-com companies, though the field ads has dwindled significantly since 17 of these high-flying firms advertised in 2000, HotJobs.com, Monster.com and ETrade will all make appearances again this year.

But in perhaps one sign of the times, companies are no longer bragging about spending half of their revenue on a spot as HotJobs.com did during its Super Bowl ad debut four years ago.

“We don’t talk about the price,” says HotJobs.com’s vice president of marketing and advertising Marc Karasu, who admits that it is less than the company paid last year. “It’s a little bit more of a buyer’s market this year.”