Super Bowl commercials will still go for laughs in 2009

By Laura Petrecca and Theresa Howard, USA TODAY

Sure, the economy has become gloomy and unpredictable for 2009, but folks can expect business as usual for one day: Feb. 1, Super Bowl Sunday.

Game advertisers will offer the familiar upbeat mix of punch lines, animal tricks, sentiment and special effects.

Tax service H&R Block thinks viewers will appreciate humor in its ad. “(Consumers) are saying, ‘We know times are tough … but we still want to laugh,’ ” says Steve Wehrenberg, CEO of Block’s ad agency Campbell Mithun.

The price tag for a 30-second ad slot also follows tradition: It’s up again this year, to an average $3 million from $2.7 million in 2008. NBC says it has about 10% of 67 game ad slots left. Most sold early, though, and sales have been tough since the economy sank in the fall. Companies don’t seem to be having second thoughts, however, about buying into an event with 97.5 million viewers in 2008.

“There is no other way in the U.S. to reach the amount of people that you can with the Super Bowl,” says Richard Castellini, chief marketing officer of job search site, jointly owned by Tribune, McClatchy, Microsoft and USA TODAY parent Gannett.

Despite a flood of pink slips, Castellini says, Big Game viewers expect “to be entertained,” and his company will stick with off-the-wall humor, including an ad with an unhappy worker and a cute koala bear.

Among advertiser plans for the gridiron classic:

•Cola wars. Coke and Pepsi again will go head to head. PepsiCo, the game’s second-biggest advertiser, with seven slots for its beverages and snacks, plans either two 30-second ads for Pepsi Max or a 60-second ad for flagship Pepsi-Cola. It would feature singer and the brand’s new “Refresh Everything” tag line.

Coke also unveiled an ad theme this month for its flagship cola, “Open Happiness,” and will feature it. But you won’t see Coke’s cola ads until the second half — rival Pepsi bought enough spots to have the first half to itself.

•Doritos DIY ad. The brand from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay brand recruited amateur video makers online for ads two years ago, and last year solicited amateur songs. This year’s contest, again for videos, got more than 1,900 entries. Doritos picked five finalists that are posted on for online voting to pick the one to air in the game. (It also is offering a $1 million prize to the maker if the ad wins USA TODAY’s annual Ad Meter consumer rating of Super Bowl ads during the game.)

•Buy a car. Struggling U.S. automakers are sidelined, but Audi, Hyundai and Toyota will suit up. South Korea’s Hyundai has two slots and is testing four ads for its coming Genesis luxury coupe, says Joel Ewanick, vice president of marketing. Among them: one with race driver Rhys Millen and one with music by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head will appear in Bridgestone tire commercials.

•Or fix the old one. Bridgestone tires and Castrol Motor Oil will court folks keeping their old car in good shape. Bridgestone is the sponsor of the Bruce Springsteen halftime show and will have in-game ads featuring Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and spacemen.

“If car sales are down, our sales to car manufacturers are down,” says John Baratta, president of consumer replacement tire sales. “This is our opportunity to … drive traffic into our stores” for retail sales.

•Timely play. With the game so close to Valentine’s Day, flower service Teleflora will air an ad mocking flower companies that send bouquets in boxes. Teleflora uses a network of 23,000 local florists to deliver bouquets in vases. “There is no point in advertising if you don’t have a point of difference,” says owner Lynda Resnick.

•A-B defends its turf. Anheuser-Busch, now owned by Belgium’s InBev, is again the game’s biggest advertiser. For its nine 30-second ad slots, A-B has created a batch of potential ads that includes slapstick jokes, a Bud Light ad with talk show host Conan O’Brien and three ads with its trademark Clydesdale horses.

“The Clydesdale message is so important this year because it reinforces our traits of tradition, heritage and quality,” chief creative officer Bob Lachky says.

•Tough job. The advertiser with the toughest job may be online brokerage E-Trade, given the dramatic stock losses investors have taken. The company is testing two ads, both with the theme of “liberation” from big financial institutions by using the online service. One features the talking baby seen in its 2008 Super Bowl ads.

“We’ve tested lots of options,” chief marketing officer Nick Utton says. “What might have worked last year is not necessarily appropriate in this environment.”

•Get a job. Online job-listing company will try to outdo rival CareerBuilder by touting its National Football League partnership. It will promote a contest for the job of “Director of Fandemonium,” which has a $100,000 “signing bonus” for the winner, and perks such as being on the field for the 2010 Super Bowl’s coin toss.

•Standing out in 3-D. While movie studios Universal Pictures and Sony also will advertise, the advance buzz has been for a 3-D ad for DreamWorks Animation’s 3-D movie Monsters vs. Aliens and a companion 3-D ad for Pepsi’s SoBe Lifewater that will feature dancing lizards, Monsters characters and NFL players. Pepsi is helping distribute 3-D glasses that let viewers get the effect.