Do they still ad up?

Some observers think Super Bowl advertising is past its prime time

By Chris Reidy, Globe Staff

Some of the most popular ads of the past 25 years appeared in the Super Bowl. Remember Mean Joe Greene swapping his football jersey for a Coke? Then there was Apple’s 1984 ad in which a woman rebelled against Big Brother conformity.

But in terms of hype and reckless excess, some observers think Super Bowl advertising may have peaked in 2000 when many advertisers paid $2.2 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

Dubbed the Dot-com Bowl, the game that year was filled with ads featuring sock puppets, monkeys, and a stampede of free-range cats. The ads were for companies that few football fans had ever heard of. The goal of those ads was to create instant brands. Two years later, some of those firms no longer exist, victims of the dot-com bust.

“Super Bowl advertising, as a pop-culture phenomenon, has lost much of its currency,” said Tom Simons, president of Boston ad agency Partners & Simons. “My guess is that it has been 15 years since anybody bought anything because of an ad that ran on the Super Bowl.”

That’s a minority view, in part because 2002 may be an anomaly. A recession and the fallout from Sept. 11 is expected to produce a more restrained crop of ads, some with patriotic themes.

What’s more, Super Bowl XXXVI may be diminished by its proximity to the Winter Olympics, which start Feb. 8. The Olympics give advertisers a cheaper alternative to promote their products.

“This year, there is definitely less buzz” about the Super Bowl, said chief creative officer Lisa Hickey of the Boston ad agency Velocity.

Fox, the network televising Super Bowl XXXVI, insists that advertisers are paying $2 million for 30 seconds of commercial airtime. But with demand softer than in some past years, other advertisers have claimed to have paid $1.85 million or less.

Still, more than 80 million diehard fans could watch Sunday night’s game between the New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams – unless, of course, there’s a complete blowout.

As cable channels proliferate, the Super Bowl remains as the biggest TV event to attract a mass audience. And thanks to years of hype, millions of viewers not only watch the football, they also watch the ads.

Typically, viewers regard TV ads as detached consumers, but once a year that changes, said chief creative officer Edward Boches of the Wenham ad agency Mullen.

“On Super Bowl Sunday, they’re all critics,” Boches said of viewers. “They’re all saying: `OK, show me your best stuff.’ They’re all asking themselves: `Was it funny? Was it entertaining?’ They don’t want to learn or be informed. They want humor.”

When the first Super Bowl was played in 1967, the ads were an afterthought, with 30 seconds of airtime selling for about $42,000, said Mike Sheehan, president of Boston ad agency Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos. That works out to about $222,000 today.

In 1984, the marketing world changed – and the price of airtime began to skyrocket – when Apple hired film director Ridley Scott (whose latest movie is “Black Hawk Down”) to create an ad for its new Macintosh computer. The ad set a new standard, and ever since, Super Bowl advertising has been a competitive sport.

For companies that make beer, soda, and snack foods, the Super Bowl is an ideal venue to pitch to the masses. Subtlety is not the forte here. Aiming for the Three Stooges demographic, ads for such companies often rely on celebrities, supermodels, cute kids, and funny animals.

Once again, Anheuser-Busch Cos. will be a big game presence. One beer ad under review for a Super Bowl airing was created by Hill Holliday.

(Local viewers could also see an ad for Sam Adams Light just before kickoff. The ad, which will air only in some regional markets, was created by Boston ad agency McCarthy Mambro Bertino, which no longer works on the Sam Adams account.)

Pepsico Inc., another Super Bowl regular, is expected to air an in-game ad with pop-star Britney Spears. And a rabbit and a pig will plump video-rental chain Blockbuster Inc.

Such ads can be as much about hanging on to old customers as attracting new ones.

“These ads are about reinforcing existing behavior,” said Boches of Mullen. “They say, `You’re a smart consumer who buys a cool product.”‘

The Super Bowl is also about launching new products and raising a company’s profile.

In the case of of Maynard, a fondly remembered Super Bowl ad lifted the job-search Web site to prominence. Filmed in black and white and created by Mullen, it featured about a dozen kids who said things such as: “When I grow up … I want to be a yes-man.” “When I grow up … I want to claw my way up to middle management.”, which has become a regular Super Bowl advertiser, will air an ad talking about its sponsorship of the Olympics. The ad was created by Arnold Worldwide of Boston.

Ask a football fan what Electronic Data Systems Corp. does, and few are likely to know, but that didn’t stop many viewers from liking a Super Bowl ad that suggested that providing business services in the Internet age is as tough as riding herd on hundreds of cats.

“The Super Bowl put EDS and Monster on the map,” Velocity’s Hickey said.

EDS’s ad may be seen again Friday night on a CBS show titled “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials II.” The program claims to be about the most popular Super Bowl ads ever.

One man unlikely to tune in is chief executive David W. Kenny of Digitas Inc., a Boston-based Internet marketing firm. An ad’s popularity means little, he said; it’s an ad’s effectiveness that counts. In his view, Super Bowl ads and other mass media strategies will become less important over time as companies turn to new technologies to market their products and cultivate customer relationships. Not only are these technologies more cost-effective, Kenny said, but their impact on sales can be measured.

“The productiveness of Super Bowl advertising is questionable,” he said. “The payback is hard to measure, and the expense is extraordinary. If you have a major new product and you want to get the news out, the Super Bowl can be a good place to do it.

“But it’s rare in a company’s history that they have something big to say. A good chunk of what you see on the Super Bowl is [a company] ego-tripping.”

That may be true. But for the moment, the Super Bowl is the largest TV event of the year, and it will continue to be a showcase for some of Madison Avenue’s best work.

Said Hill Holliday’s Sheehan: “In terms of reach and impact, there’s nothing like it.”

Chris Reidy can be reached by e-mail at