Few rookie advertisers on Super Bowl roster


By Jim Kirk

Business Reporter

With budgets tight as a drum and the chances of seeing a significant return on investment a crapshoot in an uncertain economy, a feeling of déjà vu is permeating the big advertisers for the upcoming Super Bowl XXXVII broadcast.

Network executives at ABC, which have been reporting strong ad sales for the Jan. 26 telecast, say that most of the commercial time offered will be taken by advertisers in traditional categories, such as automobile, soft drinks and wireless phone companies.

Bottom line, according to media buyers, is that few companies will try advertising during the big game for the first time. Instead, much of the estimated $200 million of available airtime is being bought by big advertisers who have been there before.

The reasons are varied, media and advertising executives say. With the economy still shaky, many companies think it’s too risky to parcel out a big portion of their ad budgets on one event.

Another reason making newcomers think twice is price. The average cost for a 30-second spot on the ABC telecast is going as high as $2.2 million, compared with an average price of about $1.9 million in the previous Super Bowl. Some companies can’t — or won’t — justify paying the 15 percent price increase.

Increasingly, however, others simply fear that with Super Bowl advertising becoming such a high-profile event, that not having a sure-fire creative hit can backfire in the arena of public and media opinion. Fewer companies are willing to risk the chance that their ad will bomb before millions of eyeballs.

“The Super Bowl has emerged as a highly scrutinized, highly critical advertising event,” said Bill Katz, president and CEO of New York-based advertising agency BBDO. That agency arguably understands the Super Bowl formula the best, with clients such as Pepsi and Visa that advertise every year.

“It’s a huge double-edged sword,” Katz said. “The upside is so big, but the downside is risky. You have 6,000 or 7,000 journalists writing about it. The results can be devastating if the advertising is bad.”

It’s a far cry from three years ago when dot-com advertisers looking for a lot of publicity to make an IPO play, spent lavishly and pushed the price of a 30-second spot to nearly $2.5 million.

Anheuser-Busch leads pack

But the current high prices are still an unexpected rebound in a sluggish economy.

“It’s a little bit cyclical,” said Peter Gardiner, partner and chief media officer of the hot New York-based advertising agency Deutsch. “If we see a cycle, it’s addition by subtraction. When the dot-coms were involved, it wasn’t as if traditional advertisers weren’t enamored. There was just more competition for the airtime.

“For the traditional advertiser, it’s still a great way to launch campaigns and new products,” Gardiner said.

More so than in years past, the upcoming game has become the exclusive country club for the blue chip set. Clearly the Super Bowl, despite the risks of over-hype, small-market teams, and blowouts by halftime, is more desirable for advertisers than ever.

ABC has sold nearly 90 percent of its advertising inventory for the game, including sponsorship of the halftime show. The halftime spectacle, formerly owned by dot-com survivor E-Trade, will now be sponsored by AT&T Wireless, which relaunched its wireless service platform during last year’s game with the quirky “M Life” campaign.

Among the familiar advertisers looking again to be on display include Anheuser-Busch, which, at nearly five minutes of air time, will dominate the game. Others include job-search company Monster.com and perennial high-profile advertisers Visa and Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi will be advertising for the 18th straight year.

Game delivers big ratings

Submarine sandwich chain Quizno’s, which doubled its ad budget in the last Super Bowl to get a spot during the game’s first quarter, said Friday that it will return to the upcoming game.

You can thank the strange dynamics of network television for much of the interest. Network television, which has been losing ratings for years, bucked the recession this year and came on strong and remained so throughout much of the third and fourth quarter. Much of the prime airtime of the first quarter of 2003 is already sold out, despite what is turning out to be a soft Christmas retail season.

With ratings continuing to fall for most shows, highly rated programming, such as the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, the Olympics, and even reality programming such as ABC’s The Bachelor, become havens for advertisers.

And for many longtime Super Bowl advertisers, the show is both a public relations and marketing platform that extends beyond the game.

“We like to use the term ‘the look of a leader,’ ” said Tony Ponturo, vice president for corporate media and sports at Anheuser-Busch, which will only run ads for Budweiser, Bud Light and Michelob during the game.

“I do think you have a pretty strong advertising market right now. In light of not the strongest economy, major advertisers with major brands really are using it to get the image out front and get the brand awareness out there.”

Though media executives say it’s too early to get a feel for whether advertisers will be pushing the envelope in terms of creativity and humor, most agree that companies will be more willing to experiment with their messages in the upcoming game compared with the last game — the first big advertising event after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Relative to last year, it will probably be less conservative,” said BBDO’s Katz. “Nerves were still raw last year, though the ones who displayed more frivolity ended up doing well. This year, that type of governor is gone.”

Jim Kirk is a business reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.