SUPER BOWL GAMES VS. COMMERCIALS / Are ads superior to game?

Are ads superior to game?


“The Super Bowl ads are better than the game.”

No doubt you’ve heard at least one friend or relative make that statement, usually after a few drinks, a large gambling loss or a horrible set of Super Bowl events that mock the sports gods — such as Washington quarterback Mark Rypien being named MVP.

But have we really reached the point where commercials have become more entertaining than the sporting event that surrounds them?

Football purists will say they hate the ads, but they still seem to talk about them as much as the game itself. A good Super Bowl might get lost in your memory, but a good Super Bowl ad will be embedded in your brain for years to come. Chances are you remember every line and camera angle from Coke’s famous “Mean Joe Greene” commercial from 1979. But can you name the two teams that played the same year?

The rise in publicity for Super Bowl ads, big halftime shows and other off-field stunts are no accident. Although the Nielsen ratings for the Super Bowl have fallen over the decades, the game-watching demographic has widened to include more women and men who don’t like the sport.

“Originally it was just a football game, and guys who liked football were the ones who watched it,” says Don Bruzzone of Alameda’s Bruzzone Research Co., which has been measuring the effectiveness of Super Bowl commercials since 1992. “And then all of a sudden it grew into an extravaganza that would appeal to almost everybody.”

Super Bowl advertisements will cost about $2.6 million for a 30-second spot this year. (They cost a “mere” $324,000 when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in 1982.)

Bruzzone’s Paul Shellenberg says in terms of who’s advertising, 2007 is looking a lot like 2006 — with regulars such as Budweiser and Pepsi returning with several spots. As of Monday afternoon, there were fewer movie spots scheduled than usual, although Shellenberg said the studios often wait until the last minute.

The ads are a huge gamble for advertisers. Bruzzone’s research shows that a successful commercial gives a buyer eight times the impact of an ad that doesn’t resonate.

The price for an ad has become a punch line, which has even been used in the commercials themselves. When all the figures are added up, though, Bruzzone says research shows that advertisers aren’t throwing away their money.

“There are a lot of intelligent people making decisions about this sort of thing,” Bruzzone says. “They’re priced at just about what they’re worth.”

Bruzzone doesn’t keep track of which are “good years” and “bad years” for Super Bowl advertisers. Fortunately, we do. What surrounds this article is a sincere and enthusiastic — while not especially objective — attempt to determine whether the ads are, in fact, more entertaining than the game.

My methodology was simple, if not scientific: I’ve already watched every game for the past 10 years, and I spent several afternoons last week watching Super Bowl ads archived on YouTube and the very helpful Web site.

You can decide whether it’s worth your time to add up my winners and losers to find out who’s ahead — but I will reveal that it’s close. Look for a Monday morning Culture Blog entry that determines whether Sunday’s Super Bowl commercials were better than the game.



XXXI (1997)

The game: Green Bay 35, New England 21

The ads: Fred Astaire dances with a Dirt Devil vacuum and Holiday Inn promotes their renovations by joking about a guy who has undergone a sex change.

Final score: Neither side wanted to win. The game was predictably one-sided — Brett Favre (left) and the Packers were favored by 14 points and won by 14 points — but the ads were worse, including a digitally enhanced Astaire corpse and Holiday Inn’s big “screw you” to the gay, lesbian and transgender community. Football 9, commercials 2


XXXII (1998)The game: Denver 31, Green Bay 24

The ads: Louie the Lizard tries killing off the Budweiser frogs, while a guy eating a lot of Tabasco spells doom for a mosquito that tries to suck his blood.

Final score: Terrell Davis running over the heavily favored Packers was cool, as was the sight of John Elway receiving his first Super Bowl ring. But it’s hard to beat an exploding bug. Commercials 31, football 24


XXXIII (1999)The game: Denver 34, Atlanta 19

The ads: The “When I Grow Up” ads spoof corporate culture, Budweiser has a firehouse dalmatian puppy spot and Victoria’s Secret’s sexy ad proves that horny men are still the primary Super Bowl demographic.

Final score: Not sure what was more annoying — Just for Feet’s semi-racist ad that appeared to feature white guys tranquilizing a black runner from Kenya or the Atlanta Falcons’ stupid “dirty bird” dance. The ads gain the edge when Falcons safety Eugene Robinson gets arrested for solicitation of prostitution the night before the game. Commercials 14, football 10


XXXIV (2000)The game: St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16

The ads: E-Trade unveils its classic dancing monkey/”We just wasted 2 million bucks” commercial and EDS features its memorable spot about cat herders.

Final score: This is why TiVo was invented. The 2000 Super Bowl and commercial-fest were both so entertaining that there was literally no time to urinate. With arguably the most entertaining Super Bowl of all time and the best commercials falling on the same year, there can be no losers. Commercials 42, football 42 (tie)


XXXV (2001)The game: Baltimore 34, New York 7

The ads: Cedric the Entertainer shills for Budweiser, Bob Dole shills for Pepsi and EDS features the “running of the squirrels.”

Final score: Not a great year for commercials — does anyone even know what EDS sells? But the ads were still way better than this defense-oriented game, which featured the coma-inducing combination of Trent Dilfer and Kerry Collins as starting quarterbacks. Commercials 15, football 6


XXXVI (2002)The game: New England 20, St. Louis 17

The ads: Charles Schwab features Barry Bonds, the Coen brothers direct an H&R Block commercial and several ads feature 9/11 tributes.

Final score: The post-9/11 commercials were classy, but became repetitive — and in retrospect, the Barry Bonds/Hank Aaron home run goof looks like something that should be turned over to the grand jury. The football game was a lot better, with Adam Vinatieri (above) kicking a last-minute field goal to seal the win. Football 28, commercials 17


XXXVII (2003)The game: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21

The ads: Reebok’s Terry Tate: Office Linebacker, the “Cast Away” movie spoof and a Clydesdale football instant replay commercial all generate big laughs.

Final score: The only thing uglier than Budweiser’s crude “Upside Down Clown” ad was the Raiders’ game plan, which gave up 34 unanswered points to former Oakland coach Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers. The refs almost had to invoke the mercy rule in this contest. Commercials 72, football 0


XXXVIII (2004)The game: New England 32, Carolina 29

The ads: A Sierra Mist commercial featuring a bagpiper getting cold air blown up his kilt looks like a Jane Austen film next to Budweiser’s flatulent horse. The 78 other ads seem to be focused on erectile dysfunction.

Final score: Everything went right during the game — a great contest between the Panthers and Patriots — and everything went wrong between plays. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” (above) highlighted the crude and unoriginal commercials, which led to audience outrage and FCC action. Football 41, commercials minus 212


XXXIX (2005)The game: New England 24, Philadelphia 21

The ads: Diddy arrives at the red carpet in a Pepsi truck, Budweiser introduces a trash-talking cockatiel, and Ameriquest has a couple of decent-but-forgettable mistaken-identity ads.

Final score: Even though we didn’t have to see Mickey Rooney’s bare bottom (it was banned by the fun police), this was definitely a rebuilding year for the ad industry. Meanwhile, Tom Brady, linebacker Mike Vrabel (left) and the Patriots held off the Eagles and Terrell Owens, who stopped acting crazy for a few hours and added some drama by playing hurt. Football 35, commercials 3


XL (2006)The game: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10

The ads: A caveman gets chided for not using FedEx (it hasn’t been invented yet), Jim Henson’s Muppets are everywhere and the “magic fridge” gets Budweiser back on track.

Final score: The Seahawks didn’t come to play and neither did many of the advertisers, but at least we got to see a prehistoric dude get stomped on by a brontosaurus. Commercials 10, football 9