More bricks than clicks in Super Bowl ads

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BY DEBORAH LOHSE

Mercury News

The advertising battle during next month’s Super Bowl promises to resemble the Clash of the Titans more than last year’s Revenge of the Nerds.

Gone are the free-spending hordes of dot-coms betting the bank on outrageous ads. While some arguably were successful from a branding standpoint — who doesn’t remember the spunky Pets.com sock puppet? — many, including the defunct Pets .com, were ultimately unsuccessful from a business standpoint. CBS officials estimate that they will get 10 percent of their ad revenue from dot-coms this year, down from about 40 percent to ABC last year.

Instead, the advertisers venturing into the 35th Super Bowl, to be held Jan. 28 in Tampa, Fla., will largely be deep-pocketed giants of marketing: Anheuser-Busch Inc., MasterCard International Inc., Visa International, Charles Schwab & Co., Sony Corp. of America, RadioShack Corp., PepsiCo Inc., Philip Morris Cos., Zale Corp. and Subway Restaurants, according to CBS officials.

The ads on the Super Bowl — the most-watched event on TV — are a popular gauge of which companies are looking to make a quick splash, and have the money to do so. While it’s difficult to estimate the bottom-line impact of the ads, the Super Bowl has become the most-prestigious advertising event for companies and advertising agencies. This year, CBS even plans a “best of” segment on past Super Bowl ads.

Two other advertisers will be taking advantage of the ratings bonanza — some buyers say they’re being guaranteed a minimum of 80 million households — to launch new brand identities of otherwise seasoned companies. Accenture, the new name of Andersen Consulting, and Cingular Wireless, the combo of SBC Wireless and BellSouth Mobility, each plans to launch campaigns during the Super Bowl — a move ad experts applauded.

“It’s an incredible place,” said Tim Spengler, director of national broadcast for Initiative Media Worldwide. “If you’ve got deep pockets and a good creative (spot), you’ve got a chance to have everybody know who you are the next day.”

Many of the 17 dot-coms that appeared last year — including Epidemic.com, LifeMinder, Britannica.com, Netpliance, Computer.com and OurBeginning.com — are either on a stricter ad budget, out of the advertising business or out of business altogether. Many reportedly fired or switched advertising agencies after their one-shot glory run.

But the reversion to the more-predictable titans of corporate America has some worried there will be no noteworthy antics like last year’s LifeMinders purposefully tacky “worst commercial on the Super Bowl” or Netpliance’s Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders in nerdy glasses.

“It’s not going to be quite as fun to watch this year,” predicted Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at New York’s Syracuse University. “I might have to pay more attention to the game.”

Ad sales haven’t suffered from the dot-com dropouts, reported CBS Television Networks president of sales, Joseph Abruzzese, who said the network expects to reap about 12 percent to 15 percent more in revenue than ABC’s take of $189 million last January, according to Competitive Media Research.

“We’re almost sold out,” he said, adding that scoring three advertisers — Cingular, Accenture and a car company he said will be announced soon — “more than make up for the dot-coms.”

Media buyers generally concur, though they say demand is noticeably less heated without the dot-coms clamoring for time. By this time last year, they say, Super Bowl ad space was sold out and last-minute bidding caused a rate spike to as high as $2.4 million for a 30-second spot.

This year, advertisers are paying about $2.2 million to $2.3 million per spot, slightly higher than last year’s average, media buyers said.

Some dot-coms are bucking the trend and making repeat appearances. E*Trade will once again sponsor the half-time event. And two online job-search sites, Monster.com, owned by TMP Worldwide, and HotJobs.com Ltd., will again be duking it out for recognition. Monster.com will have two 30-second spots during the game, and two pre-game spots. HotJobs.com will have one game spot and four pre-game.

The job-search sites said they are willing to fork over $2.4 million and more largely because the Super Bowl comes at a fortuitous time for their businesses: Employees have just received their year-end bonuses, they’ve used up their vacation time and they’ve made their New Year’s resolutions, which often include a job switch. And unlike soda, which customers would have to leave to buy, job sites report instant response after the ads run.

“Our traffic increased 700 percent the first year” HotJobs advertised on the Super Bowl, said Marc Karasu, advertising director for HotJobs.

“The Super Bowl is really the kickoff for the marketing efforts for us,” said Zhenaa Gallagher, director of advertising for Monster.com. And as a two-time veteran of Super Bowl ads — including the acclaimed “When I grow up” campaign featuring kids aspiring to such lowly dreams as “to be a yes man” — the company now believes its customers expect it to produce.

“We’re part of the Super Bowl fabric,” said Gallagher, who declined to reveal the campaign except to say it would be humorous and focused on “a slice-of-life glimpse into personal victory.”

Still, some advertisers who could afford to enter the ad fray have decided that the Super Bowl has become too much of an advertiser’s beauty contest.

“It becomes such an über contest,” said Scott Reames, spokesman for Nike, which hasn’t advertised on the Super Bowl for several years. “We’re trying to deliver a message about our brand; we aren’t trying to prove we’re funnier than that cola company.”

Contact Deborah Lohse at [email protected] or (408) 271-3672.