As Super Bowl turns 40, TV ads cut the sleaze

More spots rated G; no longer a ‘beer-drinking event’

By William Spain, MarketWatch

CHICAGO (MarketWatch) — When paying $2.5 million for 30 seconds of advertising time, you might think you could pretty much do anything with it.

No so when that half minute is airing during the Super Bowl, now in its 40th year.

Long known as an advertising showcase that can eclipse the on-field action, America’s Big Game remains a top venue of choice for marketers to roll out new campaigns or build on old ones. And the amount of time, money and talent they put behind those spots remains undiminished.

But as the event has evolved from a male-dominated sports program to a family affair — and following howls of outrage over alleged indecencies ranging from Janet Jackson’s exposed breast to a dot-com ad making fun of it — so has the scrutiny over what kind of commercial messages are appropriate.

Changing audience

“This has been a very top-of-mind subject for us,” said Mark Monteiro, executive creative director of DDB Los Angeles, an Omnicom Group (NYSE:OMC) company. He declined to discuss the content of the Super Bowl commercial his firm did this year for Ameriquest Mortgage Co., but said: “The Super Bowl audience has changed over the last few years from a guys’ beer-drinking event. Somewhere along the line, it truly turned into family entertainment, family viewing.”

Unlike virtually all other sports programming, in the Super Bowl, “it seems there really is 50% women and kids in the room,” which has had a significant impact on the content of the ads, Monteiro added.

And this year, he noted, the game will be on ABC rather than Fox, a part of News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS) . ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) , “is considered the toughest censor of all the networks we deal with.”

Advertisers typically stay mum about details of their ads until they air, or a short time before that. A spot for Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) by JWT Detroit, a unit of WPP Group (LSE:UK:WPP) remains cloaked in secrecy but it will be “super G-rated,” said an executive familiar with the ad.

In a preview by Advertising Age, it appears that humor — clean humor — is likely to be the order of the day.  Among them: Burger King has its “King” going up against football players while will bring back its company-running monkeys, the trade magazine reported.

While all broadcasters set basic minimum standards and practices for both programming and ads, how far they’re willing to bend the guidelines depends on audience makeup and other factors.

‘Highest standards’

ABC declined to go into specifics about how standards and practices may vary from say, Monday Night Football, to the Super Bowl. But in a written statement, an ABC spokeswoman said the network is aware the Super Bowl can draw the biggest television audience of the year, and “we routinely require the highest standards for all the material broadcast.”

That audience is indeed enormous: Last year, Fox drew the highest rating in its history as a network with an estimated 86.1 million viewers — down a bit from the 89.8 million pairs of eyeballs CBS (NYSE:CBS) pulled in 2004. By contrast, that is more than double what Fox drew for the NFC Championship on Sunday and better than triple the average for the highest-rated primetime program, “CSI.”

Among the advertisers looking to get in front of that crowd are Burger King, FedEx (NYSE:FDX) , Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) , Ameriquest, PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) and General Motors (OTHER:MTLQQ) . Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD) is the largest single buyer, with a total of 10 spots throughout the game, and all of the marketers are seeking mass reach in varying degrees.

However, almost as compelling as the number of people who watch is how they watch it, according to one top media buyer.

“The viewing dynamic is unlike anything else in media,” said Tim Spengler, director of national broadcast at Initiative, a media buying and planning arm of Interpublic Group (NYSE:IPG) . “The attention paid to the commercials is greater there than anywhere else in TV.”

Group viewing

Because the ads are watched in, and critiqued by, groups of viewers, they can generate a more intense audience response, he said.

“If you watch a sitcom at home alone, the chances of you laughing out loud at something are less than if you are watching it with five friends,” Spengler said.

That means Super Bowl ads also attract closer scrutiny from the broadcasters: “There is no greater spotlight. There is absolutely no ability to hide anything. Where they might look the other way, they won’t in this case.”

Neither will the media. The advertisements are endlessly written and talked about — even shown for free — in the days before and after the game, giving advertisers the biggest possible bangs for their very big bucks.

“The ads carry with them the potential to create an extended conversation around the copy,” said Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, a research firm. That means a “word-of-mouth multiplier” which can add significantly to a campaign’s return on investment, he said.

An ad that bores or offends, or one that is just tailored too narrowly for such a broad audience, can eat away at that added value, he said.

Even the best spots can be overshadowed by circumstances beyond the advertiser’s control, Blankenship pointed out. The Janet Jackson incident of two years ago “siphoned off the water-cooler conversation.”

Deliberately pushing the envelope can be its own reward in terms of getting extra attention.

Las Vegas always makes a fuss that it can’t promote the city during the game because of the NFL’s ban on any gambling-related commercials. Last year,, an Internet service company, parodied the Jackson brouhaha in a risqué ad, and Fox pulled it after one of two scheduled showings during the game.

This year, it has submitted, and resubmitted, another ad that it says ABC keeps rejecting.

In a written statement, founder Bob Parsons said, “It would be disappointing if the Super Bowl, which has long been known as the world’s stage for the most innovative and cutting-edge advertisements, lost its relevance for adventurous companies…”

Joe Mandese, editor of MediaPost, which covers the advertising and industry, said submitting ads that get rejected has generated barrels of free ink for GoDaddy, which will reap the benefits of Super Bowl hype — even if its spot never makes it onto the air.

“Remember,” he said, “when they get into a pissing match with ABC about buying an ad, they are also getting guys like us to write about it.”