At $3 million, Super Bowl ad time is ... cheap?

By Rob Neill

At a reported $3 million per 30 seconds, advertising for the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII is the most expensive ever for the big game. But by some measures, it makes financial sense, and might even be a bargain. Relatively speaking.

Last year a record 97.5 million viewers watched the tight championship matchup between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, shattering the record of 94 million set in 1996. It was the second-most-watched show since the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”

That means that even at last year’s reported rate of $2.7 million per 30 seconds, advertisers ended up paying about 2.7 cents per view, compared with 5.6 cents a view for the Oscars, which has about a third of the audience.

An NFL and Fox study conducted by Millward Brown Optimor shows that one Super Bowl ad generates more sales than 250 regular TV ads.

“They say the inauguration may be bigger than the Super Bowl. But those people won’t also be watching for the commercials,” said Walter F. Guarino, advertising professor at Seton Hall University.

A tough economy may have caused some companies that were Super Bowl ad fixtures to sit out this year’s game, but experts say they’ll be back because it’s too big an opportunity to miss.

New companies are taking the place of stalwarts like General Motors and FedEx, which are staying on the sidelines.

Denny’s, the 55-year-old restaurant chain, will have its first-ever Super Bowl spot during the third quarter.

The ad generating the most buzz may be DreamWorks’ 3-D, 90-second spot previewing its upcoming movie “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

As of mid-January, NBC had sold 90 percent of the available ad time at an estimated $3 million per 30-second slot, according to Reuters. The network wouldn’t confirm how many spots are left or what the rate is — generally, placement in the first half costs more. Reuters polled media buyers who said that probably meant 10 to 12 slots were left.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

“The Super Bowl is more than just a game, it’s a national holiday,” said Brian Walker, senior director of communications for NBC Sports. “There is unrivaled attention surrounding the game and, as research confirms, it remains the most powerful vehicle for an advertiser to promote its brand and products.”

That attention is what makes the game prime TV real estate for advertisers.

“It’s an incredibly unique advertising opportunity,” said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “There is more and more media fragmentation. The Super Bowl is the rare opportunity to reach across demographics. If you have a major new campaign, there is no better place to introduce it.”

But this year’s Super Bowl was not a good enough deal for GM and FedEx. Those two Super Bowl regulars cited the fumbling economy in their decisions to pull out of the game, although the automaker will have spots before and after the game.

“Those are tactical decisions and isolated events,” said Dean DeBiase, GEO of Media Intelligence, a research firm that looks at viewer behavior. “I think NBC is going to do a great job of monetizing this — just like they did with the Olympics.”

“The Super Bowl is still the premier platform for an ad campaign,” he said. Arguably it is the best event to launch a new campaign, he said. Starting in the Super Bowl creates a “halo effect” around the pitch.

“They use the (Super Bowl) ad as an anchor component. It’s not about the ad, it’s about the campaign,” DeBiase said.

Denny’s made its decision to get in the game last week. It was a combination of wanting to launch a big promotion and the possibility of NBC willing to deal.

“Really, it was the perfect storm,” said Mark Chmiel, the chain’s chief innovation and marketing officer. “We have been looking to become more aggressive in our promotions. Secondly, we felt there was a softness in the (ad) marketplace. We were looking for the broadest-based platform out there. And this is it.”

The company saved money by buying its 30-second spot in the third quarter. That time “delivers a very good audience, but the price is one of the lowest,” he said.

As with many Super Bowl advertisers, Denny’s isn’t sharing details about its spot with the public in advance. Suffice it to say, it will spend 25 or so seconds poking fun at competitors that offer “sweet, fluffy breakfasts” instead of Denny’s more stick-to-your-ribs Grand Slam. Then there will be an offer for viewers.

DreamWorks is partnering with Intel and Sobe Lifewater for its spot. Intel is creating the 3-D glasses, and the lizards from last year’s Sobe ad — they danced with Naomi Campbell to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — will appear in the “Monsters” spot.

That ad will air near the end of the second quarter.

“It’s just an event where you can reach so many people,” DreamWorks publicist David Hail said.

The glasses are available now at retailers in Pepsi displays and are “a big step up from those old red-blue glasses everyone is accustomed to,” Hail said.

And as for companies that will be sitting this year out?

“They’ll be back, no question,” said Calkins, the marketing professor. “They have to.”