Budweiser pulls out Super Bowl gimmicks

By Suzanne Vranica and Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal

By the time Super Bowl XL kicks off in Detroit in 11 days, Marlene Coulis will have clocked hundreds of hours in effort and thousands of miles in travel preparing for the moment.

A marketing executive at brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos., Ms. Coulis has almost as much at stake in the game as the players. Long one of the Super Bowl’s biggest sponsors, Anheuser this year has bought five minutes of ad time for its brands including Budweiser and Bud Light — more time than any other advertiser in the broadcast.

Anheuser sees the Super Bowl and its expected U.S. audience of 90 million viewers as more than an opportunity to promote its brands or sell beer. It sees a chance to be seen as funny, prompting favorable reviews Monday morning by workplace advertising critics.

“Water-cooler talk is really important. It’s a measure of success,” says Ms. Coulis, vice president for brand management at Anheuser. “If you can get the commercial to be part of pop culture, it makes the ad more memorable.” Scoring big with viewers also helps galvanize retailers and wholesalers, important constituents in the selling of beer, particularly in the months leading up to the big summer beer selling season.

The Super Bowl is the only TV program whose viewers rate ads in several online and newspaper polls. Anheuser is serious about winning top ranking in those polls, include those conducted by The Wall Street Journal and Gannett Co.’s USA Today.

Anheuser spots have regularly come out on top in various post-game rankings over the past several years, a sign of how the brewer has perfected the science of Super Bowl ads. The game ads are about “setting up a story, telling a joke and having an unexpected twist at the end,” Ms. Coulis says.

A high-ranking spot for Bud Light last year showed a man attempting to sky dive. A six-pack tossed out of the plane enticed the nervous man to take the plunge. The surprise ending? The pilot abandoned the plane in pursuit of the beer.

In this year’s broadcast, airing Feb. 5 on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC network, Anheuser is expected to follow the winning formula down to the last gag. In one spot likely to appear, which Anheuser previewed before so reporters Tuesday, two slacker guys try to escape from a grizzly bear, and Bud Light helps save the day. In another, Anheuser’s veteran Super Bowl pitchman, Cedric the Entertainer, walks down the aisle to score a pack of Bud Light. The brewer says the spots’ secret, final plot twist is a maneuver that will help them score with viewers in the Super Bowl Sunday polling.

“Generally, you have to have a joke or pay off at the end of the commercial to win,” says Bob Scarpelli, world-wide chief creativity officer at Omnicom Group’s DDB, who has worked on dozens of Super Bowl ads over the years for Anheuser-Busch and others. He refers to the unexpected ending as “the reveal.”

Anheuser’s marketing machine starts working on its Super Bowl spots months before the game. Several of the agencies from Anheuser’s roster crafted about 50 spots. In the end, Anheuser will choose only about 10 of them to run during the game. (The others will probably be used in other campaigns.) The decision-making isn’t done yet, with Ms. Coulis and her marketing team conducting focus groups through this week to help select the ones that will air. The research team has been traveling to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas and elsewhere to meet with more than 500 consumers and assess their reaction to the ads.

In past years, Anheuser’s focus groups used electronic devices to chart individuals’ second-by-second reactions to the spots — devices similar to ones used by USA Today for its Super Bowl ad poll.

Anheuser tests are set to continue until just days before the game. The brewer is known for making last minute changes to its Super Bowl ads, as late as even a day before the game. And the work doesn’t end with the broadcast: A handful of Anheuser executives stay up late on Super Bowl Sunday to call reporters and surf the Web for a sense of how they did in various polls.

The obsession over one telecast underscores how valuable the Super Bowl has become as a mass-market advertising arena, in an increasingly fragmented media world. The broadcast not only draws an audience roughly four times as big as most popular TV shows, but it also draws an audience that is very likely to be watching the ads and not using TiVo-like devices to skip through commercial breaks.

That helps drive the price of spots skyward: This year, prices are running as high as $2.5 million for a 30-second spot, up from $2.4 million last year. The ad inventory of roughly 60 30-second spots, isn’t quite sold out: A handful of spots are still available, a person familiar with the situation says.

Advertisers are returning to more spectacular ads this year, after having toned down their Super Bowl spots last year, when Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the half-time show at the 2004 Super Bowl was still a vivid memory. “The Super Bowl didn’t have a special feel, and the ads reflected that,” says Rob Reilly, a creative executive at a hot Miami agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Indeed, last year Anheuser steered clear of raunchy and sophomoric humor: One ad showed people applauding as military personnel walked through an airport.

But Super Bowl advertisers face risks if they deviate too far from expectations. PepsiCo Inc., famous for its celebrity-stuffed Super Bowl spots, tried something different in 2004 and highlighted the compatibility of its beverages with food. The ads didn’t score well with viewers.

This year, one of Pepsi’s Super Bowl ads is expected to feature comedian Jay Mohr in the role of a Hollywood agent representing Diet Pepsi. A slew of celebrities line up to work with the cool beverage. “There is no doubt that celebrities add excitement and fun, but in the end the commercial has to tie into our brand,” says Nicole Bradley, a Pepsi spokeswoman. “The goal is to make sure people are talking about our commercial the day after Super Bowl and the weeks following the game.”

Others also are counting on celebrity magic include Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., whose commercial will feature Fabio, the buff, long-haired heartthrob. Leonard Nimoy, of ‘Star Trek’ fame, will hawk Aleve, the Bayer AG pain reliever.

Big production numbers are back this year. Burger King Corp. plans to air an elaborate, 60-second ad that takes its cue from a Broadway musical, starring 92 glamorous “Whopperettes” dressed as burgers, pickles, lettuce and tomatoes and singing and dancing to new lyrics for the famous “Have It Your Way” jingle. Another big production number is expected from Unilever’s Degree for Men deodorant, featuring some 30 stuntmen, stunt women and stunt kids. In the ad, a man falls from a window, and a motorbike crashes through a glass window pane.

Humor isn’t the only Super Bowl ad gimmick. Animals are another proven vote-getter. Anheuser is expected to bring back the Clydesdale horses. And careerbuilder.com, a job Web site owned by Gannett, Tribune Co. and Knight Ridder Inc., will run two spots featuring monkeys at the office.

via post-gazette.com