Commercials for Super Bowl Return to Tried and True


Just as the identities of Super Bowl XXXVII’s two foes become clearer with each playoff matchup, so, too, do the plans of marketers for running commercials during the game, the biggest advertising event of MMIII.

The traditional formula followed by advertisers – sponsoring spots that are replete with stars, humor, surprises, music and animals – is back in style after the recent spate of dot-com hyperbole and post-9/11 patriotism.

For instance, a prominent victim of the taxman, the singer Willie Nelson, will appear in a commercial for the tax preparer H&R Block. And PepsiCo and its agencies are enlisting the shilling skills of the Osbourne family and Michael Jordan to sell two beverage brands, Pepsi Twist and Gatorade, respectively.

Only a half-dozen of the 61 half-minute commercial slots in the game remain to be sold on the ABC broadcast of the National Football League championship game, to be played on Jan. 26. “We’re right where we should be at this time,” said Ed Erhardt, president for customer marketing and sales at ABC Sports and its sibling, ESPN, both part of the Walt Disney Company.

“We’re better than 90 percent sold today,” Mr. Erhardt said yesterday. “We expect good demand for what’s left, and there’s not a whole lot left.” Fox, which broadcast the game in 2002, had sold slightly less commercial time at this point last year.

The commercial time remaining in this year’s Super Bowl is in the third and fourth quarters, which typically sell more slowly than spots in the first half. Usually, Super Bowl viewing does not significantly drop off as a game goes on, unless the score is tremendously lopsided; if the score is close at the end, as it was last year, the ratings often grow.

Though Mr. Erhardt declined to discuss prices for Super Sunday spots, agency and media executives say they are paying or being asked to pay an average of $2 million to $2.2 million for each 30 seconds. That represents a nice increase from the estimated average of $1.9 million charged for Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.

Even in a difficult economy, “a leader demonstrates a desire to lead, to grow the company,” said Robert Hanson, president for the Levi’s brand at Levi Strauss & Company in San Francisco. Levi Strauss will run a commercial in the second quarter to introduce the Type 1 line of jeans.

“It’s the Super Bowl of advertising, too, so running a commercial makes a statement,” he added, “asserting our stature as a category leader for a product launch that’s the most important in Levi history.”

The commercial, by the New York office of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, will provide the final clue in a contest now under way on the Levi Strauss Web site ( to win a package valued at $150,000, for the 150 years the company has been in business. The spot, which features a stampeding herd of buffalo to salute the Levi Strauss Western heritage, carries the theme “Bold since 1853,” which morphs into an updated promise of “Bold since 2003.”

Speaking of updated, the commercial for Gatorade uses special effects to depict the present-day Michael Jordan being challenged to a game of one-on-one basketball by a 1987 version of himself. The spot, which began running last week during the college football bowl games, ends when a college-age Jordan seeks a chance to play. While Gatorade is seen each year on the sidelines during the game – and on the field if a team carries a barrel into dousing range of its coach – the spot is the brand’s first appearance as a Super Bowl advertiser.

“It’s a very purposeful choice,” said Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer at Element 79 Partners in Chicago, the Gatorade agency, which is part of the Omnicom Group. “Gatorade is coming off its most successful sales year ever, and we want to build on that momentum.”

The commercial was produced with digital effects from Digital Domain and directed by Joe Pytka, who has worked with Jordan on many commercials.

Another reason for Gatorade’s Super Sunday foray is that it is now owned by PepsiCo, which acquired its former parent, Quaker Oats, in August 2001. “PepsiCo has done well by this media venue,” Mr. Ryan said, referring to the popularity of spots for snacks sold by the Frito-Lay division as well as soft drinks sold by the Pepsi-Cola division.

Two soda brands – Pepsi Twist, a lemon-flavored version of Pepsi-Cola, and Sierra Mist, a lemon-lime rival to 7Up – are to be advertised during the game. Last month, a Pepsi Twist commercial with the Osbournes was filmed at the family’s Los Angeles home, and that spot is expected to turn up during the Super Bowl. Executives at Pepsi-Cola and its agency, the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, part of Omnicom, declined to discuss their Super Bowl ad plans.

Also mum on specifics of their Super Sunday strategy are H&R Block and its agency, Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, part of the McCann-Erickson World Group unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies. The agency gained attention for a spot during the Super Bowl last year using a re-recorded version of the Beatles song “Taxman.” All that Richard Goldsmith, a spokesman for H&R Block, would say is that the commercial would be humorous and feature “a well-known and appropriate celebrity.”

That celebrity, according to Promo magazine, a trade publication, will be Mr. Nelson, the country singer who had to pay the government after his home and other assets were seized in 1990 by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of $16.7 million in taxes. The commercial is part of an advertising and promotional campaign to pitch a service from H&R Block called Double Check, which reviews a customer’s previously filed tax forms.

(Mr. Nelson’s appearance will evoke a commercial for a brokerage firm around three decades ago featuring the boxer Joe Louis, whose tax and financial difficulties were notorious, in which – if memory serves – Louis asked, “Edwards & Hanley, where were you when I needed you?”)

• Other advertisers returning from last year include the two job-search Web sites that will have faced off for five consecutive Super Bowls: Monster, formerly, part of TMP Worldwide, and HotJobs, formerly, part of Yahoo.

“It’s our Christmas, if you will,” said Marc Karasu, vice president for advertising at HotJobs in New York, as job seekers pursue New Year’s resolutions to find better posts and companies firm up hiring plans.

“Marketers are constantly striving to find a way to reach the right person with the right message at the right time,” he said. “And here we have people receptive to our message who are actually looking for commercials, because people watch the Super Bowl as much, if not more, for the commercials as for the game.”

HotJobs and its agency, Brand Architecture International in New York, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of Omnicom, are still discussing plans for their spot, Mr. Karasu said, which is likely to run in the third quarter. Monster and its agency, Arnold Worldwide in Boston, part of the Arnold Worldwide Partners division of Havas, declined to reveal their Super Bowl ad plans.

Other advertisers that are buying commercials in the game include Anheuser-Busch, FedEx, General Motors and Visa.