Big TV ad $$$ being spent before kickoff

By Theresa Howard, USA TODAY

Advertising in the Super Bowl pregame show is not a second-string marketing ploy this year. Some of the biggest names on Madison Avenue think it’s where the smart money is.

With ad budgets tight and in-game airtime cluttered, marketers are looking to the three-hour warm-up to the big game to launch products, showcase brands and unveil campaigns. The league and the Fox network, trying to pull in this year’s cautious ad spenders, have made the show more appealing, giving it a patriotic theme and pumping up the star power. The combination of that with 30-second slots going for at most half (and some for much less) than the nearly $2 million average to be in the game, has made the show look like a bargain for many advertisers this year.

“It’s a monetary thing this year more than anything else,” says Mark Dowley, chairman and CEO of Interpublic Sports & Entertainment Group. “People are being much more cautious, and the cost and risk of Super Bowl is magnified a thousand times in a tough economy.”

It’s even harder for companies to justify $2 million for one in-game ad when investors see sales down or employees see co-workers laid off.

Instead, many advertisers are elbowing for pregame positioning to get a low-risk Super Bowl presence.

For the lower price this year, they’re buying into a show that looks like some previous halftime shows, with “probably the most impressive musical lineup in the history of Super Bowl pregame,” brags Ed Goren, president and executive producer of Fox Sports. Mary J. Blige, Marc Anthony, Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey lead the lineup.

“For companies who might find participation within the game pricey, this is a wonderful opportunity to wrap themselves around the greatest sporting in this country – and the American flag,” Goren says.

Some marketers going pregame:

* Make the call. Pizza Hut is a pregame veteran – not buying in-game since 1996 – and has the coveted final pregame slot before the kickoff spot for the sixth year in a row.

“My job is to sell pizza, not to win awards,” says Randy Gier, chief marketing officer. “Economics are part of it, but we want to influence viewers to buy Pizza Hut. Pizza is Pavlovian. If you see it on TV, it makes you want to jump up and lick the screen. And you will pick up the phone, too.”

Many do. Super Bowl day is Pizza Hut’s biggest Sunday of the year.

This year, the chain tempts viewers with a new product: P’Zone.

An ad will show comedian Tommy Davidson taunting Americans in malls and stadiums with the latest Pizza Hut product that’s a “pizza you eat like a sandwich.”

* Olympic proportions. The Olympics are on NBC next month, but Office Depot has bought a 30-second Super Bowl spot to kick off a campaign advertising itself as the official office supplier to the Olympics, as well as a source of office supply expertise.

Pregame is less expensive, so the return on investment is better,” spokeswoman Eileen Dunn says. “It’s opportunity for employees, investors, customers and vendors to get a sense of our new brand message.”

Ice curling “expert” and medallist Don Barcome appears in the ad that introduces the tagline: “What you need. What you need to know.”

* Sony’s Game Day. Sony is a leading pregame sponsor with eight spots for PlayStation 2 and its 989 Sports brand. It will also be a part of the pregame program’s finale with 10 minutes of taped highlights from a matchup between two opposing Super Bowl players who take each other on in PlayStation 2’s NFL Game Day video game.

“We want to be part of the entire day,” says Ami Blaire, director of product marketing, Sony Computer Entertainment of America.

* Scoring with owners. McDonald’s has been in and around the Super Bowl for more than 20 years. But this year, it’s buying a pregame brand spot. “It’s a good value not only for us as a company but for our owner-operators, as well,” spokesman Palmer Moody says.