Super Bowl Ads Bring Back Icons of Yore

By Michele Gershberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Advertisers at this year’s Super Bowl hark back to the familiar in new commercials for TV’s biggest event, dusting off celebrities from decades ago and putting childhood icons into the spotlight.

Cartoon super heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America rush to the rescue in payment card company Visa’s spot, while the Muppets dig in to Pizza Hut fare. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny join forces to tout Emerald of California snack nuts at the National Football League championship football game on Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles play the New England Patriots.

Some marketers are relying on safe and reassuring symbols from the past, to counter an indecency scandal from the 2004 Super Bowl and to recognize the event’s popularity beyond men who love beer, according to advertising executives.

Actor Burt Reynolds and singers Gladys Knight and MC Hammer are some of the celebrities past their heyday, or in the midst of a comeback, expected to appear in ads on the Fox network at $2.4 million per 30-second spot.

“What last year really illustrated was that people always assume it’s a male audience of a certain age, but you do have moms watching and kids … and if they don’t like what they see, they will be heard,” said David Droga, worldwide creative director at Publicis Worldwide .

For advertisers and their agencies, the Super Bowl is the biggest stage for their best work where they vie for the title of most memorable or entertaining commercial.

The rivalry for surprise left a bitter taste last year when an outcry over Janet Jackson (news)’s exposed breast during a half-time show performance spilled over to a critique of edgy ads throughout the game.

“After the scrutiny that everything was put under last year, no company or CEO wants to be held up as an example,” said Droga. “They will overcompensate and find other ways to entertain.”

Using established stars and icons helps companies get their message across, as viewers already know and identify with them. Perennial Super Bowl advertiser PepsiCo is expected to use a mix of new and older celebrities, though the beverage maker has kept its plans under wraps.

Characters like Spider-Man also speak to the childhoods of older audiences but are still fresh for younger viewers.

“You like to see people like that come back,” said Tom Cordner, worldwide creative director at WPP agency JWT, in charge of ads for automaker Ford . “You may know something about their lives — maybe they ran into some misfortune at one point — and you root for them.”


Brewer Anheuser-Busch, the single largest Super Bowl advertiser, was criticized last year for ad gags including a flatulent horse and a crotch-biting dog. This time the maker of Budweiser and Bud Light beers promises to go heavy on the humor, light on the offense, in about 10 Super Bowl ads.

“You’ve got to be careful because if you do cross the line … you get slapped down so hard by critics and people who do take offense, it really isn’t worth taking that risk,” said Bob Lachky, director of global brand advertising at Anheuser-Busch.

Anheuser’s most titillating spot didn’t make the cut this year, but is driving traffic to its Web site. The ad shows a stagehand opening a Bud Light with Janet Jackson’s black leather bustier before she dons it to perform, a spoof of the “wardrobe malfunction” which bared her breast in public.

The brewer may put other edgy ad work on its Web site to target its core audience and avoid controversy, Lachky said.

Internet domain manager also parodies the indecency fracas in its ad. A buxom dancer describes her routine for a commercial before broadcast censors.

The “raciest” ad in this year’s game may be a spot for Cadillac’s V-Series car, which casts the vehicle accelerating from zero to 60 miles per hour as akin to a speeding bullet.

And lust is not entirely absent. Lincoln Mercury returns to the Super Bowl after more than a decade, showing a clergyman coveting a churchgoer’s Mark LT truck in the parking lot.