Just how effective are Super Bowl ads


Everybody talks about them, but do Super Bowl commercials really work?

Will a donkey’s desire to be a Clydesdale sell more beer? Did Britney Spears romping on a beach whet your thirst for a Pepsi? Can Willie Nelson persuade people to have their taxes prepared at H&R Block? That and this report from The Bergen Record’s Kevin G. DeMarrais

That’s the $2.3 million question, based on how much sponsors will pay for each 30-second spot on next Sunday’s gridiron extravaganza. It’s the one television show of the year in which advertising challenges program content for viewer attention.

“As a pop-culture phenomenon, they are the most talked about ads of the year,” said Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Henderson, a New Mexico-based advertising agency that measures viewer response . “Everyone has a favorite.”

A survey by InsightExpress, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research company, indicates that half of the viewers are more interested in the commercials than in the game itself, and that 97 percent of media planners see Super Bowl spots as “effective in raising consumer awareness.”

As a result, the Super Bowl continues to be a popular venue for launching new products and promoting established brands.

But some marketing and advertising people question how much that interest and awareness translate into sales.

“It all adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of nonsense,” said Mark Stevens , author of “Your Marketing Sucks ,” a book centered on the thesis that many of the most creative ads are a waste of money. The Super Bowl merely “brings the nonsense into national focus.”

Without a measurable return on investment, such as an increase in sales, “the only ones benefiting from the ads are the network and the [National Football League,]” Stevens said. The companies “may as well throw the money out the window.”

Whichever view is true, advertising agencies attempt to be at the innovating best.

“As the Super Bowls evolved over the years, the ads are no longer ads,” said Randall Rothenberg , chief marketing officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, an international management and technology consulting firm in New York.

“It’s all about entertainment, and has become a very expensive high risk, potentially high-reward strategy for marketers,” said Rothenberg, who has written extensively about advertising and marketing. “A lot of small marketers have shot their wads to buy a single Super Bowl ad.”

It wasn’t always that way. In its early years, the Super Bowl was a popular sporting event, drawing good television ratings and ever-increasing rates for commercial time. Ads were merely ads, as they were with other programming, a necessary evil to pay the bills, something to fill the screen during snack or bathroom breaks. That and this report from The Bergen Record’s Kevin G. DeMarrais

That all changed in 1984.

Just as the victory by the brash young Jets over the old-establishment Baltimore Colts in 1969 changed the Super Bowl from a game to an event, an Apple Computer commercial in 1984 forever changed the direction of Super Bowl advertising.

The Apple commercial, which aired just once, used a Orwellian theme to launch the upstart Macintosh personal computer into an industry dominated by the epitome of establishment, IBM.

It showed a rebellious woman running through an audience of drone-like humans to smash a big-screen image of Big Brother.

The ad was such a big hit that it was ranked as the top television commercial of all time in a 1999 TV Guide survey. How much impact it had on Mac sales is another question, because Apple still trails far behind IBM.

Other ads had little critical or business impact, but a commercial launched in the 1974 Super Bowl won praise on both counts. The simple commercial showed one of Master Lock’s padlocks withstanding a bullet, and it is credited with dramatically boosting the company’s market share.

What makes a memorable ad? Consumers and advertisers surveyed by InsightExpress say humor, special effects, and catchphrases are the key. Last year’s favorites include Budweiser’s football Clydesdales’ instant replay; Pepsi’s Lemon Twist with the Osbournes; Visa’s “Yo”/”Yao”; Reebok’s Terry Tate office linebacker; and FedEx’s castaway.

Those same sponsors are expected back with new commercials this year. With an improved economy, CBS had no trouble selling ad time for Super Bowl XXXVIII, even at a record rate that is $200,000 more than in 2003.

With five minutes of air time, for an estimated $23 million, Anheuser-Busch Cos. leads the way, but a host of other companies will be seeking to capture the attention of the 140 million fans expected to tune into the game. That and this report from The Bergen Record’s Kevin G. DeMarrais