Super hype over Super Bowl ads

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BY DEBORAH LOHSE

Mercury News

Anybody care for a little football with their commercials?

The country just now may be getting ready for the showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV on CBS this Sunday. But the hype over advertisements is already headed for epidemic proportions.

One company that has bought a one-minute spot during the game has been giving its Super Bowl campaign Hollywood-debut treatment, complete with behind-the-scenes explainers and interviews with the actors. Others, too cheap to buy ads, are trying to get ink for frugally not advertising during the Super Bowl. CBS, meantime, is busily promoting its show slated for the night before the big game: “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials.”

“The ads have now got ads themselves,” marveled Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. “These things are so hyped up.”

The Super Bowl “has become a phenomenon in and of itself for commercials,” added George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State University.

With prices for a 30-second spot hitting $2.3 million or more for this most-watched event, it’s not surprising that companies are finding ways to milk the moment, and the attendant publicity, like never before.

“People sit down and question how a company can justify spending $2 million for a 30-second spot,” Belch said. They justify it because they get free publicity as the media dissects who is spending the big bucks this year, who is not, and which advertising agencies turn out the best ads in what’s become Madison Avenue’s “advertising film festival,” as Thompson described it.

“There is so much publicity that surrounds the ad, with so much discussions and stories done around them, that a dollar investment extends well beyond the ads,” Belch added.

Assorted companies are trying to capitalize on the day, too. One New Mexico advertising agency tried to sponsor an Internet Ad Bowl, but the effort got sidelined by an outage at its Internet service provider.

A pro-animal-rights group has made hay of its efforts to submit a would-be Super Bowl ad, in what some network types privately call a publicity stunt.

Going all-out

Perhaps no company is working the pre-game hype this year as much as Electronic Data Systems Corp., or EDS, the tech-consulting company little known beyond its past ties to Ross Perot. After getting some acclaim among advertising critics for last year’s Super Bowl ad, featuring cat-herding cowboys solemnly discussing the challenges of their trade, EDS has gone all-out with this year’s spot.

In materials released to the media, EDS has included Entertainment Tonight-style behind-the-scenes snippets, interviews with the ads’ creators, and interviews with the actors who answer questions in character about the sport.

“From the people who brought you cat herders,” proclaims a video release on the campaign, comes “Running with the Squirrels,” a spoof on the Spanish running of the bulls tradition.

Much of the material will be featured on EDS’ Web site, along with interactive features such as squirrel trivia.

Other footage shows the “making of the squirrels commercial” including how the creators, helped by cheering crew members, got one particular squirrel to scamper across a blue background.

A local news station in EDS’ home market around Plano, Texas, already has run the behind-the-scenes snippets, and EDS expects “substantial play” this week leading up to the Super Bowl, said Donald R. Uzzi, a senior vice president of global advertising, marketing and communications at EDS.

But some analysts said all the hoopla may not do enough to help explain EDS or even necessarily cause people to remember who sponsored the ad.

The cat-herder ad, for example, was “one of the best Westerns in 20 years,” Thompson said. But he added that he feared many people didn’t know the ad was EDS’, and of those that did, “a lot of them had no idea what that company did.”

Yet another clue that Super Bowl commercial-worship is reaching a peak is Saturday’s prime-time show rehashing Super Bowl ads of old. A news release promises the show will include Budweiser’s “Whassup” commercial, as well as American Express ads featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Diet Pepsi spots with Michael J. Fox.

Even the choice of hosts comes off as a plug: a couple of relatively unknown actors from a new CBS sitcom, “Yes Dear.”

The show is “kind of a testimony to how big an advertising showcase the Super Bowl has become,” Belch said.

The show’s producers have been inviting would-be viewers to vote, through Wednesday on the top ad out of a top 10 slate of nominees at www.usatoday.com

Contenders include Apple Macintosh’s futuristic 1984 ad, featuring an athletic woman tossing a sledgehammer through a Big Brother propaganda film; Coke’s 1980 Mean Joe Greene ad where he tosses his jersey to a kid who shares his Coke; and the 1993 McDonald’s ad showing Larry Bird and Michael Jordan challenging each other to make a shot “off the expressway, over the river, off the billboard, through the window, off the wall, nothing but net.”

Turned down

One group that professes to want to fork over $2.5 million is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose “steer clear of leather” campaign was turned down by CBS, officially for being overly advocatory.

Privately, network officials view the attempt by PETA as a publicity stunt, but PETA said the effort was legitimate, and that PETA relished the shot at joining the pre-game advertising hype. Said spokeswoman Lisa Lange: “We would have been right there with them.”

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