Let the Sunshine In For the Super Bowl, tough times call for upbeat measures


– Eleftheria Parpis

NEW YORK Back in 2000, a chimpanzee helped E*Trade tell 84 million Super Bowl viewers that it “just wasted $2 million” advertising on the game. The point of the 30-second ad, of course, which featured two men in a garage clapping along with the dancing primate, was to ask, “What are you doing with your money?” The spot from then-agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners was a commentary on both perennially extravagant Super Bowl productions and the excess of those halcyon dot-com days. In the 2001 game, E*Trade’s chimp traveled through a ghost town of failed Internet companies, a tear rolling down his cheek.

“It reflected the times, but didn’t take itself too seriously,” says Paul Venables, co-founder of Venables Bell & Partners, of that ad. (This year Venables is doing its second Super Bowl spot for Audi, a counterintuitive ad, given the recession, for the new Audi R8 luxury sports car.)

As we well know, that tough time now looks like Easy Street. As a result, even some longtime Super Bowl supporters have opted out of the 2009 game, including Federal Express — which had been a sponsor for 12 years running — and General Motors. FedEx’s director of advertising, Steve Pacheco, cites the obvious reason: the economy. “There’s a time to justify such an ad spend,” he explained in a statement, “and a time to step back.”

Still, for the clients shelling out $3 million this year to reach an estimated 100 million viewers, it’ll be business as usual. Industry execs predict a Super Bowl ad party less raucous than years past, and one that will avoid the dismal tone of the times. What we’ll see more of, they say, are product-specific or sales-oriented messages, and less-aggressive humor.

“People are a little frightened to celebrate,” says Bill Bruce, chairman and CCO of BBDO New York, noting it could come across as brands “not getting it. … There are a lot of people who have lost jobs, homes; there are serious problems out there.” (BBDO will have General Electric, Monster and NFL spots on the Super Bowl, though Bruce declined to discuss their content.)

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are both going the optimistic route. Coke’s recently launched global campaign, “Open happiness,” continues with a Super Bowl spot in which teens connect over a Coke and another with an army of insects stealing a napping man’s soda. “Coke is [not] going to solve the economic problems of the world or the Middle East crisis. [It’s] a small, simple pleasure in people’s hectic day,” says Joe Tripodi, Coke’s CMO and commercial officer.

Other brands are also offering a (small) break from the world’s woes. This year’s game is a “bastion of relief, and a time to kick back with family and friends more than ever,” says Keith Levy, vp of marketing at Anheuser-Busch, which has four-and-a-half minutes of ad time this year, its 21st consecutive Super Bowl showing. “We want to make sure our message is reassuring and uplifting.”

This will be the company’s first Super Bowl following its acquisition by InBev. Its work will rely more heavily on the Clydesdales to reinforce the brand’s heritage. Whereas past games usually featured one Clydesdale execution, this year will showcase three. They’ve “always done well on the game,” says Mark Gross, svp, group cd at DDB Chicago, which produced most of the A-B spots expected to run on the game, including ads for Bud Light.

The economic climate gives H&R Block-whose last Super Bowl ad was in 2004 — a reason to return, says Jonathan Hoffman, president and CCO of Campbell Mithun. The humorous spot, part of the brand’s three-year-old “I got people” campaign, features a man facing the Grim Reaper, and emphasizes that it’s a good time to have people watching your back. “We opted not to genuflect the personality of the brand to the prevailing conditions,” he says.

The economy has also refigured some plans. E*Trade and its agency, Grey New York, retested an initially successful concept after the economy tanked. While the spot will still star the well-received talking baby who debuted on the game last year, he’ll be less biting. “This year is different … when it comes to the financial world, real estate, the stock market,” says Tor Myhren, CCO of Grey New York. “People want to laugh, but anything that insinuates laughing at misfortune is taken more personally.”

First-timers Pedigree and Denny’s are both using humor in their ads. Pedigree’s 30-second spot from TBWA\Chiat\Day will not show a single dog or kernel of food, but instead will demonstrate what a dogless world would be like, according to John Anton, marketing director for Pedigree. “People want to be entertained and watch ads that are uplifting,” he says.

Denny’s is promoting its Grand Slam breakfast with a spot from recently hired agency Goodby that shows two cowboys being served a candy-coated breakfast. The spot will announce what Mark Chmiel, evp, chief marketing and innovation officer of the casual-dining chain, describes as “a customer offer that has never been done in the sit-down segment.”

With dollars tight, the pressure on the work to achieve results will be at an all-time high. But even at $3 million per 30 seconds, the expense is worth it, says Chmiel. “[We asked] ourselves if we had something important to say,” he notes. “If you have news, shout it from the mountain.”