Some corporate giants back away from Super Bowl ads

Michael McCarthy USA TODAY

NEW YORK — While some marketers couldn’t wait to buy a Super Bowl ad, a growing fear factor is keeping others on the sidelines.

Among the most prominent on the bench for ABC’s Jan. 26 telecast are big guns that created some of the Super Bowl’s most memorable spots: McDonald’s, Nike and Coca-Cola. Once perennial in-game advertisers, they’re sitting out for at least a fifth year.

They often now run ads in cheaper pre- or post-game shows, but it’s about more than cost. The game’s price has always divided the haves and have-nots.

“There’s only a handful of advertisers who’ve been able to afford it since Day One,” says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of media buyer PHD USA.

An ad in the first game in 1967 was a then-pricey $42,000. This year, ABC has gotten up to $2.2 million for 30 seconds of ad time.

That makes the game advertising’s ultimate cost/benefit risk, but many who can afford it are held back now by fear that the spotlight is too bright, with a growing number of media and industry observers judging best/worst ads, and that the penalty for failure is too high.

“You can become a hero — or find yourself the butt of jokes,” notes Jerry Dow, director of worldwide marketing communications for United Airlines.

Careers are made and broken on the success of these high-profile ads. And the industry is mindful of how Super Bowl advertiser Just for Feet sued Saatchi & Saatchi for $10 million in 1999 for what the retailer essentially alleged was advertising malpractice.

Not everyone buys this hand wringing. Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett USA, who oversaw the famous 1993 “Nothing but Net” McDonald’s ad starring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, thinks the extra attention helps, not hurts, the $245 billion ad industry. “It’s fun. We’re all superstars that day. People actually talk about advertising.”

Why some heavyweights are punting on the game again:

* Nike’s 1992 Super Bowl spot with Jordan and Bugs Bunny, by Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, inspired the film Space Jam. But the swoosh will be out for a fifth year, leaving an opening for rival Reebok to return with its first spot since 1994. And Jordan is back — in spots for both Hanes and Gatorade.

Nike now thinks the Super Bowl audience is “too broad” and the timing isn’t right for its promotions, says spokeswoman Celeste Alleyne.

* Coke and ad agency McCann-Erickson, New York created one of the game’s most popular spots in 1980: Mean Joe Green with a little boy. But even though it just launched a major star-studded campaign for Coke Classic, it will leave the Super Bowl to Pepsi, which will be back in force.

* McDonald’s has been out since 1996, though it still runs ads in cheaper pre-game programming, including a new spot this year by DDB Chicago. “We’ve been very pleased with the pre-kick position,” says spokesman Palmer Moody. “It’s delivered the audience we like to showcase our brand.”