Ads get a break during Super Bowl

Engaged audience makes event uniquely valuable

By William Spain,

CHICAGO (CBS.MW) — “C’mon, honey, I promise I will take the garbage out — just as soon as the game comes back on.”

Commercial breaks might be the time for mute buttons and bathroom visits during most of the year, but when advertisers shell out tens of thousands of dollars per second to reach Super Bowl viewers, they’re buying a special opportunity: On the big Sunday, the ads draw as many eyeballs as the game.

Disney’s (DIS: news, chart, profile) ABC is charging — and mostly getting — a bit over $2 million for each 30 seconds of commercial airtime.

That money buys reams of news coverage (like this story), often with free airing of part or all of the commercial, and sometimes the bragging rights for muscling direct competitors off the biggest broadcast event of the year. But mostly it buys that special audience.

“It has been proved they watch the commercials closely, and you can’t overestimate” the value of that, said Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer for Omnicom (OMC: news, chart, profile) shop Element 79 Partners. They also come in groups, he added, “like a national block party — it’s definitely got an extraordinarily high percentage of communal watching.”

Ryan has created about a dozen ads to run during the Super Bowl over the years, including spots from Anheuser-Busch (BUD: news, chart, profile), Blockbuster (BBI: news, chart, profile) and various Pepsico (PEP: news, chart, profile) products.

Three Jordans in one ad, one in another

This year, Ryan’s agency has what is apt to be one of the most popular — and critiqued — ads of all: A Gatorade spot featuring basketball star Michael Jordan going one-on-one with a younger version of himself.

Jordan looks to be something of a ball hog, also appearing with actor Jackie Chan in a spot for Sara Lee’s (SLE: news, chart, profile) Hanes unit.

Among the other advertisers on the schedule:

* Pepsico with almost 3 minutes of ad time slotted, reportedly using most of it to promote its Sierra Mist soda; an online poll on Yahoo (YHOO: news, chart, profile) and other sites allows consumers to pick the ending for the ad.

* Perennial sponsor Anheuser-Busch, once again the game’s largest single advertiser.

* Tax-preparer H&R Block (HRB: news, chart, profile) using singer and Internal Revenue Service poster boy Willie Nelson to tout its services.

* Tobacco giant Philip Morris (MO: news, chart, profile) encouraging people not to use its core product line.

* Reebok (RBK: news, chart, profile) with “Terry Tate — Office Linebacker,” the shoe and apparel marketer’s first appearance in nine years.

* Vivendi’s (V: news, chart, profile) Universal pictures with a first glimpse of “The Hulk.”

* AOL Time Warner’s (AOL: news, chart, profile) promoting its upcoming “T3: Rise of The Machines.”

* Pfizer’s (PFE: news, chart, profile) Trident gum with a spot speculating on what happened to the dentist who was not one of the “four out of five” to recommend sugarless gum to their patients.

* Additional ads from Fedex (FDX: news, chart, profile), Charles Schwab (SCH: news, chart, profile), General Motors (GM: news, chart, profile) and others.

All eyes on ads

And the audience will eat them all up, according to a recent analysis by Stacy Lynn Koermer, director of broadcast research for Interpublic’s (IPG: news, chart, profile) Initiative Media.

“At twice the ratings of its nearest competitor, no other telecast throughout the year delivers the mass audience, the hype, and the commercial attentiveness that the Super Bowl promises,” she wrote.

While “common sense has told us that viewers were paying attention,” Initiative’s measuring of commercial audience retention of various TV specials over the last several years “has consistently found that the Super Bowl exhibits the closest relationship between its program and commercial minute ratings of all major television specials and regular series.”

Regular programs lose an average of between 5 percent and 15 percent of the audience during commercial breaks, Koermer found. But 2002’s Super Bowl broadcast on News Corp.’s (NWS: news, chart, profile) Fox (FOX: news, chart, profile) “had nearly equivalent ratings between the program and commercial minutes” with a less than 1 percent drift. Even the National Pastime can’t come close: Game 7 of the last World Series “had a near 10 percent differential,” she said.

Those are the numbers that draw in advertisers old and new.

Gatorade comes off the bench

Curiously, despite its long association with the gridiron, this is Gatorade’s inaugural spot for football’s marquee event, said Liz Bardetti, the Pepsico division’s equity director.

“We are a first time paid advertiser in the game but we have been on the sidelines for three decades,” she said, which could well make the brand one of the Super Bowl’s longer-lasting players.

In Gatorade’s case, she said, both the creative aspects of the ad and the timing made the difference. Jordan recently announced his latest retirement from basketball, and while “January is not usually a big media month for us, this is a really fitting tribute to Michael’s great career and a great platform to launch” the campaign.

Gatorade plans to use the ad extensively during other sporting events, including NBA games and the NCAA hoop tourney on Viacom’s (VIA: news, chart, profile) CBS. (Viacom is a significant shareholder in, the publisher of this report).

Magical, but not miraculous

This year’s advertisers can depend on generating a lot of “buzz” for their cash, but there are some things even the most expensive ad time in the world can’t do.

“If a brand is in trouble, and they think they can get a Super Bowl ad and sell a truckload of product the next day, that would not be a wise choice,” said Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett USA, a division of Publicis (PUB: news, chart, profile). “It can’t turn around a sick brand, and the idea that it will [automatically] up sales numbers the next quarter is just not realistic.”

It is “a good place to kick off” an effort, she added, but “it can only work as part of a holistic marketing plan.”

Even the hype ain’t what it used to be, said Michael Kempner, CEO of Interpublic’s MWW Group, a public relations agency.

Most Super Bowl advertisers try to create “special breakthrough” spots for the occasion, he said, but with so many different companies doing just that, “it is getting harder and harder” to really stand out.

“There is so much clutter, so much activity, it has to be extremely compelling to create that value-added PR impact,” he said.

Still, as “much as it is harder to break though,” Kempner says the ads are “very much a part of the event. A major part of people’s viewing experience is to watch these ads and give their own reviews at home.”

Unlike other sports championships, where the teams involved can make a big difference in the ratings and publicity levels, Kempner says, “it doesn’t matter who plays. It only matters how good a game it is.”

William Spain is a reporter for in Chicago.