Super Bowl Advertisers Use PR Firms to Generate Buzz

Pfizer Sends Media Outlets Tote Bags Featuring Squirrel, Chestnuts, Gum


Late last week, reporters and producers at 45 major media outlets across the country received mysterious blue tote bags. The contents: one plush toy squirrel, a plastic football, two pounds of chestnuts, two packs of Trident gum, and videotape with scenes from an as-yet-unaired television commercial.

Now, there were the makings of a hot story! — or so the LaForce & Stevens public-relations firm in New York hoped would be the reaction at “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and other tote-bag recipients.

The bulletin: Pfizer Inc.’s Adams division is scheduled to introduce a new Trident commercial during the Super Bowl this Sunday. The spot will spoof Trident’s familiar “four out of five dentists surveyed would recommend Trident” message by revealing the fate of the fifth dentist: A squirrel bites him.

Yes, the annual pre-Super Bowl hype by participating advertisers is in full swing — and more intense than ever. With so many flashy ads competing for viewers’ attention, advertisers such as Pfizer are increasingly turning to PR firms to generate news that will have viewers anticipating a particular commercial.

General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac, H&R Block Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and Monster, the online-recruiting concern owned by TMP Worldwide Inc., are using publicists to help pump up interest in their Super Bowl ads. A typical two-month pre-Super Bowl public-relations project can cost marketers about $150,000 to $200,000, on top of whatever they spend for the commercial airtime.

With the cost of securing Super Bowl commercial time reaching as much as $2.2 million for 30 seconds, or $73,333 per second, many companies believe it is no longer enough to simply advertise on television’s most watched event. (Last year, the game reached more than 42.6 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research.)

“You have to take your advertising and try to exploit it to the greatest degree possible,” says Harris Diamond, chief executive officer of Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Weber Shandwick Worldwide. The firm devised the publicity efforts of some companies advertising on this year’s game, such as H&R Block and Monster.

Among the current PR campaigns:

* H&R Block has hired four full-time PR staffers to provide 600 hours of hyping for its Super Bowl ad tied to singer Willie Nelson’s tax woes. The company is distributing 100 million entry cards for a “Tax Freedom for Life” sweepstakes tied to the ad.

* Sara Lee Corp.’s Hanes’s press kit includes a T-shirt tied to an ad featuring basketball great Michael Jordan.

* Reebok International Ltd. mailed out coolers containing popcorn, pretzels, sunglasses and a football jersey.

* PepsiCo Inc. has posted its Super Bowl ad for Sierra Mist on the Web, where consumers can vote for their favorite ending.

* Pfizer’s Trident, in addition to the tote-bag promotion, has hired two men who will dress up in fuzzy squirrel costumes and prance around outside the “Today” show studio sometime this week, hoping for some free TV time. A staple of the show, on General Electric Co.’s NBC, is panning the crowd outside. Trident is also sending letters to 45,000 dentists nationwide urging them to tune into the Super Bowl.

* Monster is using three full-time in-house PR professionals to trumpet its Super Bowl ad to the media and enlists seven full-time PR professions from Weber Shandwick. The outside team is likely to spend roughly 1,400 hours on Super Bowl tasks, which include arranging media interviews for Monster executives. The goal: Top the roughly $3 million in free press the company got last year.

Is it all worth the effort? Yes, if it generates enough pregame publicity. “It’s more cost effective than buying prime time spot on ‘E.R.,’ ” says David Byers, H&R Block’s chief marketing officer, referring to the popular medical drama that airs on NBC. Confident that the extra media coverage would be valued at a minimum of $2.5 million in exposure, the company is hoping to top the 400 Super Bowl-related news stories it generated last year with a commercial directed by the Coen brothers, who are known for offbeat movies such as “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Already, this year’s Willie Nelson spot has received news coverage on AOL Time Warner Inc.’s CNN and in Hearst Corp.’s San Francisco Chronicle and Dow Jones & Co.’s Wall Street Journal (see article1). The syndicated TV show “Access Hollywood,” is expected to do a full feature on H&R Block’s Super Bowl plans in return for being the only TV outlet given permission to air the complete version of the Nelson ad.

Such publicity gambits often work because marketers are learning to stage them well in advance of game day, when the Super Bowl press corps is hungry for stories. Jeffrey Kuhlman, director of communications at GM’s Cadillac, says he realized the company didn’t reach out as much as it could have last year and vowed to “start earlier” this time. Today, the car maker has two PR firms working on behalf of its Super Bowl ad: Publicis Groupe SA’s Hass MS&L and Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, a unit of Interpublic. One ploy: go-cart races featuring celebrities.

Quizno’s Corp., the fast-food chain, is playing up a Super Bowl ad featuring Chef Jimmy, the company’s founder. Quizno’s is hoping for the same attention it got last year after its public-relations firm pitched CNBC a story about how the company was risking the majority of its advertising budget on purchasing a Super Bowl time slot. The result: the cable channel did an entire segment on Quizno’s.

For this year’s Super Bowl commercial, Quizno’s (along with General Motors) has scored with Gannett Co.’s USA Today. Headline: “Last year’s rookies back for more; Quizno’s shows a guy in his undies as Cadillac bets it all on 90 seconds.”

The pregame hyping of Super Bowl ads is often traced to Apple Computer Inc., which almost 20 years ago chose the game as the venue to launch its “lemmings” spot. Before game day, Apple teased consumers and the media with a full-page newspaper ad warning: “If you go to the bathroom during the fourth quarter, you’ll be sorry.”

During the dot-com boom, advertisers became more ambitious. Upstarts such as Monster and Hotjob began providing reporters with copies of their Super Bowl commercials ahead of the game in order to get free publicity.

These days, PepsiCo releases its commercials about a week in advance of the game “to capitalize on the buzz surrounding Super Bowl,” says Dave DeCecco, senior manager of public relations for Pepsi-Cola North America. The beverage and bottling concern got an estimated $10 million in free publicity for a 90-second Britney Spears performance it used to promote Pepsi soda last year.

Some, though, buck the trend. Contrarian Anheuser-Busch Cos., the world’s largest brewery, traditionally keeps its Super Bowl ads under wraps until they run, a practice favored by some brand experts who say pregame publicity diminishes the impact of an ad.

Write to Suzanne Vranica at suzanne.vranica@wsj.com2 and Vanessa O’Connell at vanessa.o’connell@wsj.com3

Vying for Your Attention

Advertisers are hoping pregame buzz will help pump up interest in their Super Bowl spots. A sampling:

Ad Ad Details Quarters Anheuser-Busch Singer Tim McGraw promotes responsible drinking All Gatorade A present-day Michael Jordan plays a Chicago Bulls-era version of himself 1st H&R Block Willie Nelson promotes shaving cream after he learns he owes the IRS $30 million 1st Quizno’s The company’s founder becomes the fast-food chain’s pitchman 1st PepsiCo A smart baboon promotes ‘Sierra Mist,’ among other spots 1st, 2nd, 3rd Hanes Jackie Chan attempts to remove annoying tag from T-shirt; Michael Jordan comments 2nd Levi Strauss Images of the Old West mix with modern images of young, hip people in jeans 2nd Monster An 18-wheeler missing a driver wreaks havoc on a small town 2nd Trident gum Trident spoofs its own ‘four out of five dentists recommend Trident’ message 2nd AT&T Wireless Viewers find out specifically what an ‘mLife’ is like 2nd, 3rd Cadillac A 1950s man daydreams about Cadillac’s modern-day cars 3th Hotjobs Ordinary folks sing ‘Rainbow Connection’ at their jobs 3th Reebok Terrible Tate, an overzealous office worker, rights the wrongs of co-workers 3th Families achieve a dream such as buying a new home 4th Sony Electronics A man liquidates his assets for his coming space trip 4th

Updated January 21, 2003