Super Bowl Ads: A Whole New Ballgame

Tom Van Riper

So long, Chevy and Pepsi-Cola. Hello, Go Daddy and E-Trade.

The ranks of Super Bowl advertisers are changing. Where once mass marketers saw intuitive sense in getting in front of a mass audience–which the Super Bowl provides like no other television event–high costs and limited metrics to gauge effectiveness have changed the thinking in some quarters. Especially since the growth of the World Wide Web has introduced more options.

Pepsi, a Super Bowl regular for years, recently made a splash of sorts by announcing it would pass on this year’s big game in favor of a $20 million interactive Internet campaign that includes a big Facebook promotion. The announcement raised some eyebrows (perhaps gaining Pepsi as much attention free of charge as it would have gotten from actually airing ads during the game), but it shouldn’t have. The company’s exodus is more a sign of the times than a bold, original move. Fewer cars, detergent and shampoo are being sold on Super Sunday, too.

“Companies must ask themselves, ‘For $3 million, what else can we do?'” says Thomas Harpointner, chief executive of AIS Media, an e-business consulting firm.

For a well-known brand like Pepsi, he notes, spending millions to get your name in front of people who already know it makes little sense. The Web brings the tools to capture and segment the customer data from those logging on, more valuable to a mature company. “The better for a marketer to target its customers,” says Harpointner.

So who’s better off laying out the nine figures for the Super Bowl? Mainly those companies whose brand images are still developing, where the goal is to shape opinion or change public perceptions.

Hyundai, which will advertise this year, is trying to expand past an image as a maker of small, cheap cars. Go Daddy, the Internet domain registrar that markets aggressively through racy ads, some featuring racecar driver Danica Patrick, got over 5 million hits on its Web site following last year’s Super Bowl ads. Career Builder has a natural fit this year thanks to a bum economy that’s got more people looking for job search help. And online broker E-Trade, increasingly established but still focused on luring customers from traditional brokerages, is back in the Super Bowl for a fifth year.

Transferring Super Bowl dollars to Web hits, in particular, makes for easier ROI measurements, a big factor for marketing executives pitching their bosses during a time of tight budgets. The implied benefit of getting in front of 100 million people for 30 seconds no longer cuts it.

“The key is leveraging it beyond the game itself. More marketers are taking it to the online world,” says George Belch, who teaches sports business at San Diego State University.

Meanwhile, traditional consumer products companies now pick their spots, often limiting Super Bowl air time to new product launches. Unilever, for example, will push a new men’s Dove soap line during this year’s game. Procter & Gamble has been mostly quiet since 2004, an exception being the introduction of its Tide to Go instant stain remover two years ago. And of course state ward General Motors isn’t advertising for the second straight year.

A few old standbys remain. PepsiCo is spending for its Frito-Lay unit even as it pulls soft drink ads. Levi Strauss will peddle Dockers. And Super Bowl king Anheuser-Busch, now Anheuser-Busch InBev, is still a big presence. But as Harpointner notes, A-B’s broader marketing deal with the NFL and its partners includes discounted rates for Super Bowl spots. He thinks the company will scale back before long. Super Sunday is fast becoming a specialized space for developing newer brands and driving Web traffic, complete with more stringent ROI measurements.

“Super Bowl advertising as we’ve known it is gone,” says Harpointner.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the NFL’s network partners–CBS this year–won’t be able to continue charging $2.5 million to $3 million per spot. But it’ll be an increasingly tougher sell.