Advertisers pull out all stops for Super Bowl

Millions worldwide find ads more entertaining than game

George Raine, Chronicle Staff Writer

It’s possible that the best Super Bowl commercial you’ll ever see is one of the 60-plus queued up at CBS for the Feb. 1 game — or not.

No other advertising is as costly because the audience is so vast. The bar of excellence is very high, as are expectations.

All the blue-chip regulars are back for the advertising bonanza: Anheuser- Busch once again leads the parade with 10 30-second ads, the 16th consecutive year it has been the exclusive beer advertiser. Plus there’s Visa, General Motors, PepsiCo and more. There will be premieres this year by, among others, Procter & Gamble Co. and Staples Inc.

Bernice Kanner, a longtime New York magazine writer who covered marketing and advertising in her On Madison Avenue column, reached back to 1998 for her favorite Super Bowl ad: “Apology,” the FedEx spot created by the BBDO agency.

It was nothing more than a color bar (a reference for camera operators matching color and video brightness and darkness) with a scrolling message from a fictitious company that the commercial it had intended to air, with dancing kangaroos and Garth Brooks, could not be seen because “some boob” from its (now ex-) ad agency had not used FedEx to send it to NBC.

“What I liked was they were not spending zillions, but they got it across that you absolutely, positively had to use FedEx. It was the antithesis of what we so often see — so simple, such a good idea. That is my hope for the next Super Bowl,” Kanner said.

Marketers are spending an average of $2.3 million for a 30-second spot, a 9 percent increase from the 2003 game. Estimates vary on the number of viewers for the game — it’s hands down the most-watched program of the year — but it’s possible that 750 million worldwide, by Kanner’s research, tuned in to ABC to see the Oakland Raiders’ humiliating loss to Tampa Bay last year.

While the event was devoid of anything redeeming for Raiders fans, ad watchers were rewarded. The PepsiCo Gatorade spot with 39-year-old Michael Jordan in a one-on-one with Jordan as a 23-year-old Chicago Bull, soon joined by Jordan as a North Carolina Tar Heel (digital technology by Element 79 Partner in Chicago) was awfully good.

Advertisers have long known that the day makes for a marketing opportunity like no other.

“It’s clearly an investment,” said Howard Clabo, a spokesman for Fed Ex, which will be advertising in a Super Bowl for the ninth time.

FedEx has a unique relationship with the National Football League, serving as a transportation partner handling shipping for the league and its teams — game films, equipment, etc. “It helps us put a cap on our overall NFL sponsorship,” Clabo said.

CBS has sold about 85 percent of its advertising time, industry sources said last week, and the remaining handful of slots, in the fourth quarter, will go quickly.

We’ve come a long way from January 1967, when the tradition began. Kanner notes in her new, lively book for Bloomberg Press — “The Super Bowl of Advertising: How the Commercials Won the Game,” an overview of 36 years of the game’s ads — that there were 29,000 empty seats at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles when the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the first contest.

Tuning in for the ads

Many viewers now watch the game on television solely for the commercials — Kanner among them. She pondered the question, are we as a people better off with Super Bowl commercials?

“If you consider advertising malevolent or benevolent … umm. I think we are better off if the goal is to have better advertising.”

Procter & Gamble’s premiere is interesting in part because, although its worldwide advertising is ubiquitous — $4.3 billion in 2003 — it tends to be cautious in tone. P&G favors benefit ads, those that benefit the product. But the Super Bowl broadcast is not a place for reserved advertising. Viewers want laughs.

“We had to move beyond the normal,” P&G spokeswoman Robyn Schroeder said.

Accordingly, P&G held an advertising competition for seven of its brands to determine which one would appear on Super Bowl XXXVIII, as well as make a marketing splash in Houston, where the game is to be played.

There were three criteria for the brands to be considered in the contest: The ads and the marketing strategy had to be a good fit for the venue; there needed to be a strong match for the target audience; and there had to be opportunity for business growth for the brand.

The winner was Charmin and ad agency Publicis, whose tag line has the appropriate edge the venue requires: “Softer and stronger for your end zone.”

P&G’s marketing plans for the day include making its presence known around Houston’s Reliant Stadium in the form of a 53-foot-long traveling rest room, the Charmin Pottypalooza. The company says it provides “a comfortably clean bathroom experience to outdoor events across the country.”

Staples Inc., the office products supplier, makes its Super Bowl premiere with a 30-second ad by Martin/Williams Advertising of Minneapolis centered on the new brand promise that “Staples makes buying office products simple.”

In the ad, featuring actor Joe Viterelli (Jelly in “Analyze That”), a Staples associate comes to the rescue of a stressed control freak.

“Easy is easy to say but hard to do,” said Shira Goodman, executive vice president of Staples in Framingham, Mass., “but we are now focused on delivering an easy shopping experience across all channels. In terms of getting the message out, the time of the Super Bowl is great for us — tax time, organizing time — and we also send a message to our associates that easy is what we are all about, and easy is our commitment.”

She added, “It’s not an insignificant chunk of change,” buying time, “but we believe it’s cost effective.”

Nuts to the Bay Area

Diamond of California, the Stockton nut company and one of the state’s largest grower cooperatives, bought time for two 15-second ads to be broadcast strictly in the San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento and Chico markets during the game to introduce its new snack nut division, Emerald of California.

The purveyor of whole cashews, dry roasted peanuts and almonds and more is rolling out the products beginning today in Northern California.

The two ads, by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, tell the stories of happy snackers.

Emerald of California’s regional purchase is a fraction of what the network is charging, but having a presence even on the sidelines of the broadcast is a marketing plus, the company said.

The market competition is mighty, with chips, pretzels and candy traditionally dominating the $27 billion snack category, but Emerald will compete in the healthy subcategory, where trail mix, snack nuts and health bars have carved out 14 percent of the pie, Diamond spokeswoman Vicki Zeigler said. 

“The Super Bowl is certainly one of the top snacking events of the year, if not the snacking event of the year, so it seems a natural fit,” said Zeigler. “You’ve got a huge audience sitting around the TV and thinking about snacking, and these nuts are good for them.”

AOL is making a considerable investment in the game, sponsoring the NFL Halftime Show and buying three spots during the game and two before it. They feature the motorcycle-riding Teutul family — Paul S., Paul Jr., and Mikey — who appear on the Discovery Channel’s top-rated show “American Chopper.” All of this is a metaphor to show what AOL presents as the benefits of TopSpeed, the built-in Web accelerator in AOL 9.0.

The day will have at least one serious note. Viacom, which owns CBS, and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the health information and research group, will sponsor a “Know HIV/AIDS” public service announcement for the second consecutive Super Bowl. 

Today, as many as 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS and more than 20 million have died, note the sponsors. Yet, there are projections by UNAIDS that nearly two-thirds of all new HIV infections worldwide could be eliminated by 2010 with more effective education and prevention — which is the point of the public service announcement.

Commercials as entertainment

Virtually every other ad will be a knee-slapper, or so the makers hope, and that is often the reward of Super Bowl advertising.

“It’s an incredible phenomenon,” said Kanner, “because commercials every other day are the enemy. In this citadel of commercialism, America is putting on its best.”

The networks and the NFL often become “holier than thou and guardians of our values” for the occasion, rejecting some material they consider inappropriate, Kanner said. This year,, a left-leaning Internet- based group that wanted to air an anti-President Bush commercial during the game, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were rejected by CBS because it does not accept advocacy ads.

For the 1998 Super Bowl, Vivus Inc., a Mountain View developer of therapeutic systems for erectile dysfunction, hired San Francisco’s Hoffman/Lewis agency to produce a spot for its product, Muse. The delivery system is a bit complicated (the drug alprostadil is in an applicator that’s inserted 1 inch into the urethra), but the ad was not.

It was the first-ever television ad for an impotence treatment product. Actor Ed Asner simply said: “Attention impotent men, all 20 million of you. Impotence is usually a physical problem, not a mental one. And for many men it can be treated with Muse. …Call 1-888-367-MUSE and see your doctor. And buy some flowers.”

NBC’s standards department rejected it, and the people at Vivus had a good laugh about it, said Lewis Villalba, associate director of corporate development. “It was OK. We got as much PR having them declining it as we would have if it ran,” said Villalba.

Said ad man Bob Hoffman, who created the spot, “Look at today’s Levitra ad (a competitor in the erectile dysfunction category). A guy is throwing a football through a tire. What a juvenile analogy.”

The leader in the field, of course, is Viagra, a major sports player, as a “proud sponsor of Major League Baseball.”