Super Bowl ads may be more subdued

Super Bowl commercials are destination television. An estimated 100 million people will be watching this year, many of them wanting to see the ads as much as the game.

And while the big game maintains its aura of hype and glitz, the bleak economic climate has influenced the kind of Super Bowl advertising we’re all going to see on Feb. 1. Most notably, several major advertisers have decided to sit this one out.

FedEx has had an advertising presence for 12 consecutive years, but spokesman Jim McCluskey said the decision was made to “take a time-out” from advertising this year as it did not seem appropriate when the nation is buffeted by recession and its own salaried employees are taking a pay cut. “We’ll gauge going forward if we can return next year,” he said.

That said, FedEx found the wherewithal to sponsor the national college football championship game that was played Thursday.

General Motors, an advertiser for the past 16 years, will not buy an in-game ad but will buy time around NBC’s Super Bowl broadcast, said spokeswoman Kelly Cusinato. That includes Cadillac’s exclusive sponsorship of the postgame show and most valuable player award, she said.

Cusinato said the decision not to have an ad during the game this year was “largely driven by the fact that we did not have a major vehicle launch that aligns with the timing of this event.” She added that GM has reduced its advertising and promotions budgets “in response to a very challenging business and economic climate.”

Marketers often face complex social, political and economic issues, and must find the appropriate voice and message. The economic turmoil probably will cause some marketers to sympathize with consumers, but they’re still selling, they still want more market share. Not every advertiser is willing to turn down the pitch. And, the game will go on.

Thirty-second ad slots are going for a reported $3 million – up from $2.7 million a year ago when the game was carried on Fox – and NBC was fortunate enough to sell a good number of them last year before the economy tumbled, said Brian Walker, a senior director at NBC Sports. The network had sold about 90 percent of 67 half-minute ad slots by early September, and the sales are still hovering around 90 percent, a reflection of marketing budgets being tightened.

Return on investment

Networks with Super Bowl rights, however, tell prospective advertisers that they can’t afford not to buy time because return on investment is so great. For example, PepsiCo, an advertiser for the 23rd consecutive year, estimates it received more than $10 million in advertising value – a measure of the benefit from media coverage of an ad campaign – from its 90-second Britney Spears spot in 2002, said David DeCecco, a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola North America. A 30-second spot that year on Fox cost $2 million.

The game is a ratings bonanza. The 2008 game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots had 97.4 million viewers, the largest audience for a U.S. sporting event.

“The Super Bowl is more than just a game, it’s a national holiday. 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 product,” Walker said.

Much of the advertising will be what the audience has come to expect – mirth and cleverness.

This year, DreamWorks Animation and PepsiCo’s SoBe Lifewater, along with Intel and NBC, are planning a big act: Millions of viewers are expected to don 3-D glasses to watch a 90-second trailer for DreamWorks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens” followed by a 60-second spot for SoBe Lifewater at the end of the second half.

Intel, which provided DreamWorks with technology to create films in stereoscopic 3ED, has produced more than 125 million pairs of 3-D glasses, to be distributed at stores.

“Millions of people will be donning their glasses and waiting for the commercials,” said Timothy Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “It is a rather astonishing thought … millions of people waiting for a commercial.”

Tailored ads

Other ads will be tailored to hard economic times.

Hyundai Motor America had its ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, create an ad for the Genesis Coupe. It shows the car being put through its paces on a road course in Georgia as Yo-Yo Ma plays the Bach Cello Suite 3 in C major. But that ad may be pushed to the Academy Awards telecast in favor of a more pedestrian commercial with a ripped-from-the-headlines message.

The “Hyundai Assurance” ad, also by Goodby, tells consumers that if you buy a new Hyundai and within a year “lose your income,” you may return the car to the dealer and in many cases walk away from the debt. The program covers the car’s first $7,500 loss in value. Thus, if a customer buys a $20,000 car, returns it within 12 months and the value of the vehicle is set at $12,500, Hyundai will pay the difference.

“We’re all in this together,” actor Jeff Bridges says in the voiceover. “And we’ll all get through it together.” In another version he says, “An automaker that’s got your back. Isn’t that a nice change?”

The ad has generated a lot of talk in the auto industry, and its message is spot-on, say marketing specialists.

“Consumers respond to economic downturns by postponing big-ticket purchases like cars,” said David Stewart, dean of the A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Management at UC Riverside. “By providing some reassurance, Hyundai may prompt some consumers to buy who would otherwise have postponed a purchase.”

Anheuser-Busch is still in a party mood. It’s the Super Bowl’s exclusive beer sponsor through 2012, and year after year sees sales spike after the game, said Bob Lachky, Anheuser-Busch chief creative officer.

The company has bought 4 1/2 minutes of ad time and considers the game its best platform to kick off its selling season, Lachky said. He added that Anheuser-Busch’s marketing plans for the game are unaffected by the economic doldrums. In fact, he sees the day as a balm.

“To have fun with friends and family – that will not change, and in fact, the Super Bowl will be a little island of sanity” amid the tumult, he said.

Audi of America is back for the second consecutive year, with a 60-second ad by another San Francisco ad agency, Venables Bell & Partners. Venables’ 2008 Super Bowl Audi ad was a riff on “The Godfather” in which a movie producer is shocked to wake up to find the grille of a Mercedes in his bed, not unlike the famed scene in the movie featuring the severed head of a horse. It boosted traffic to the Audi Web site by 200 percent, said Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer at Audi of America. He said the Audi R8 became the top search term on Google after the ad aired.

“We are the great unknown in the marketplace,” Keogh said. “We think a Super Bowl ad is a means of moving us into the great knowns.” He added, “Regardless of the economic climate, you always want to be building your brand.”

Many familiar names will be advertising during the Super Bowl, including Coca-Cola; the nation’s two largest online job-listing companies, Monster Worldwide and CareerBuilder; movie studios; and Bridgestone tires will sponsor the halftime show, which stars Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Northwestern’s Calkins said he wonders whether “the usual formula will still work” for ads this year. Will lighthearted jokes still resonate in a down economy? Will they fall flat?

“I suspect we will see some new approaches this year,” Calkins said. “Overall, I think there will be a more quiet, serious tone. This makes sense. The best marketing efforts connect with people on a deep, emotional level, and right now many people are worried about their jobs and the economy.”

San Francisco ad man Jeff Goodby sees it differently.

“Hopefully by the time the Super Bowl rolls around, it will be a more optimistic period for politics and for our news in general,” he said, “and people will be ready to drink some beer, eat potato chips and watch a football game and not get too heavy about it.”