A Super Sunday for Football and for Madison Avenue



As Madison Avenue gears up for Super Bowl Sunday – the biggest day of the year for both advertising and football – marketers and agencies are adopting a strategy torn from a gridiron playbook: get big or go home.

Many of the executives taking the expensive risk of advertising during the ABC broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVII on Sunday are deciding, in effect, if they’ve got it, they may as well flaunt it.

Advertisers are buying more commercial time during the game than usual or initially intended. Just four advertisers – Anheuser-Busch, General Motors, PepsiCo and Sony – will by themselves account for 40 percent of the spots being sold by ABC.

Marketers including Reebok International are also running spots that go on for longer than the traditional 30 seconds, while others like AT&T Wireless and the Hanes division of the Sara Lee Corporation are buying commercials during the pregame, halftime or postgame shows. Some companies, like Levi Strauss & Company and PepsiCo, are also sponsoring online promotions tied to their Super Bowl commercials. And more advertisers than ever are orchestrating elaborate publicity campaigns centered on Super Bowl spots.

Advertisers are flooding the zone – even though 30-second spots during the game are estimated to cost an average of $2.1 million – in hopes their commercials will break through to the projected audience of 130 million or more Americans expected to watch at least part of the game.

That audience is particularly prized for its size, probably the largest for any TV show this year. And the viewers actually want to watch the ads during the annual midwinter festival of athleticism and commercialism. A survey from Eisner Communications in Baltimore found that a record 14 percent of respondents said they would watch the game primarily for the commercials, compared with 2 percent who said so in the first survey in 1995.

“One of the biggest challenges today is to be seen, to be heard, to be noticed,” said Becky Saeger, executive vice president for brand marketing at Visa USA in San Francisco, a Super Bowl mainstay that will run two spots during the game by the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group. “Your dream is that a consumer wants to watch, to listen to you.”

The avid audience helped convince the beer goliath Anheuser-Busch, which was already set to be the single largest advertiser in the game with five minutes of commercials, to add another 30 seconds to its mammoth buy.

As a result of moves like that one, the total number of advertisers taking the 61 30-second spots during the game is somewhat less than usual.

“How many times are you going to get this many people sitting in front of their televisions watching and talking about the ads?” asked Ed Erhardt, president for customer marketing and sales in New York for ABC Sports and its sibling, ESPN, both parts of the Walt Disney Company.

“So if you’re going to invest in the Super Bowl, if you’re going to have the platform, use it,” he added.

Another way sponsors are seeking to enlarge their presence on Sunday is to have their agencies create spots that run 45, 60 or even 90 seconds. In addition to Reebok, advertisers like DaimlerChrysler, FedEx, and G.M. are offering supersize commercials.

“This is a big moment for us,” said Micky Pant, chief marketing officer at Reebok in Canton, Mass., which is returning to the Super Bowl after an absence of IX, er, nine years. “So we decided to go for broke.”

“It’s a lot of money for that minute,” Mr. Pant said, “but our brand is looking better and enjoying significant growth, and our product line has improved dramatically. So if you put money behind advertising, it’s worth it.”

The Reebok spot – a collaboration between the Arnell Group in New York, owned by Omnicom, and Hypnotic, an entertainment production company in Los Angeles and New York owned by Enigma Media – introduces a character named Terrible Terry Tate, an office worker who behaves like a linebacker.

Reebok has such high hopes for the character that the spot was the subject of teaser commercials that ran this month, which is another way to try making a Super Sunday presence loom larger in consumer minds.

“On Monday, you’ll either have a celebrity,” Mr. Pant said of Tate, “or our collective heads.”

To help insinuate their commercial messages further into the public consciousness, companies have stepped up their public relations efforts surrounding the spots. These campaigns are being aimed at customers, employees or franchisees, through corporate meetings, newsletters, Web sites and e-mail messages, as well as at the public through coverage on TV shows like “Entertainment Tonight.”

“It’s all about confidence in your creative and confidence in your message,” said Ted Sann, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO New York, which is creating commercials for FedEx and Pepsi-Cola as well as Visa. “When you have that confidence, the Super Bowl is a great place to be. Otherwise, there are a lot of reasons for not being there.”

Chief among those reasons – apart from the cost, of course, which is up from last year’s estimated average of $1.9 million for a 30-second commercial – is a fear that a subpar spot will inflict far more damage than skipping the game altogether.

“Oh, God, every time you’re in, you hold your breath,” said Mike Campbell, chief creative officer for the New York office of J. Walter Thompson, part of the WPP Group. “You don’t want to go in with anything you think is less than a touchdown.”

That is why, in planning the rollout this month of humorous commercials for the Trident gum brand sold by Pfizer, Thompson New York juggled the order of how it would introduce the initial two spots. One, featuring a deranged squirrel, was to have appeared in early January and the other, focused on a pesky fly, was to have started later this month. But when the squirrel spot “scored the highest in Trident history” in consumer testing, Mr. Campbell said, the agency decided “to hold what we thought was our biggest bang for the Bowl” and the fly commercial came out first.

The Trident commercial, with humor, animals and a surprise ending, is typical of the content of Super Bowl spots. Other familiar elements like celebrities and music will also be prevalent in the spots to be shown, emblematic of a back-to-basics approach after three Super Bowls of dot-com boom, dot-com bust and post-9/11 patriotism. (There will be only three dot-coms in the game – myfico.com, part of Fair, Isaac & Company; the Monster division of TMP Worldwide and the HotJobs unit of Yahoo – compared with 17 in 2000.)

Among other examples of tried-and-true content are a BBDO New York spot for the Pepsi Twist brand sold by Pepsi-Cola, which will present Ozzy Osbourne, Florence Henderson and Donny and Marie Osmond; the Hanes spot, by the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, featuring Michael Jordan and Jackie Chan; a commercial for H&R Block by Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, also part of Interpublic, with Willie Nelson as the star; and spoofs of “Gilligan’s Island” and “Antiques Roadshow” in spots for AT&T Wireless by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in New York, part of WPP.

The current escapist mood of the country, as indicated by strong sales of movie tickets at box offices each weekend and high ratings for offbeat reality shows on television, would suggest that a zany, madcap approach to Super Bowl spots is smart. The advertisers and ABC are, of course, hoping there will be no breaking news like war with Iraq to render inappropriate the light, upbeat tone of most spots. They do have contingency plans in place, which they declined to discuss, in case the Super Bowl is overtaken by events.

“You have to be nothing if not flexible these days,” said Ms. Saeger at Visa, which is to present the basketball star Yao Ming in one of its spots.

That flexibility is underscored by the decisions of several marketers that have been recent Super Bowl advertisers to skip the game this time.

“We look at it on a case-by-case basis,” said Celeste Alleyne, a spokeswoman for Nike in Beaverton, Ore., which has run many memorable Super Bowl spots. Rather than wait for Sunday, she added, the company decided to introduce during the playoffs a talked-about spot titled “Streaker” for its Nike Shox NZ line. The spot, by Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., shows a fan clad only in a scarf and shoes running wild on a soccer field.

“We’ll do it when it makes sense for us, when it lines up with our strategic priorities,” said Larry Flanagan, chief marketing officer for another frequent Super Bowl sponsor, MasterCard International in Purchase, N.Y. Though the game “didn’t fit in with our priorities right now,” he added, MasterCard will advertise during coverage of other TV big events like the Academy Awards, also on ABC.

So if the Oakland Raiders battling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in San Diego does not excite you enough, mark your calendar for March 23 when MasterCard and other marketers will sponsor another West Coast skirmish, between Miramax and the rest of Hollywood.