One shot at ad glory

Contenders hope to win in battle for Super Bowl ad supremacy


This is a frame grab from one of the new commercials that will be seen during the Super Bowl broadcast this year. The Lay's potato chip ad features an elderly couple fighting to get a bag of potato chips. The elderly woman holds the false teeth even though her spouse got to the potato chips.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 11:27 p.m.

NEW YORK - A new crop of contenders will be taking their shot at immortality at next week's Super Bowl, but they won't be doing it on the football field.

They're an odd bunch: The hobbled grandparents who fight over a bag of potato chips, a boisterous family that builds super-fast motorcycles and the heavyset gangster who demands a cream puff.

Twenty years ago, Apple Computer Inc. rocked the advertising world with an iconic ad to introduce a product called the Macintosh. Since then, the Super Bowl has become the undisputed testing ground for the most ambitious and aggressive ideas in the advertising industry. Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1 will be no different.

And why not? Despite a slumping TV season and questions in some corners over the benefits of network advertising, there's no arguing with the staying power of the Super Bowl as one of the most effective ways of reaching tens of millions of attentive viewers all in one shot.

In fact, viewership of the Super Bowl has been on the rise during the past few years, reaching 88.6 million last year, according to Nielsen Media Research, up from 84.3 million in 2001, the last time CBS had the game. The broadcast rotates among ABC, Fox and CBS as part of the NFL's comprehensive $17.6 billion, eight-year TV deal announced in 1998.

"There is nothing else like the Super Bowl. It's watercooler, it's an event," said Donna Wolfe, chief negotiation officer for national broadcast advertising at the Universal McCann ad agency.

"When you talk about regular prime time programming, there are more choices every year," Wolfe said. "It's not that people are watching less television, they have more choices."

On the other hand, the fact that nearly 90 million people are glued to their sets and not only watching the commercials but then critiquing them can have a terrifying effect on marketing executives, who want to make sure their ads are "Super Bowl-worthy."

Viewer polls ranking the ads, such as a popular one done by USA Today, can cause major heartburn for companies betting $2.3 million - the average cost of a 30-second ad this year - that their message will be a hit.

"Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and see themselves at the bottom of the survey," says Jason Maltby, who buys TV ad time on behalf of advertisers for Mindshare, a firm owned by WPP.

For veteran advertisers such as brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Cos., producing top-rate commercials for the big game is business as usual, Maltby says. But for first-timers, "there's a lot of pressure on them to make sure their commercial stands up," Maltby says.

That hasn't deterred Staples Inc., which is buying its first Super Bowl ad this year. Its spot depicts a greedy worker named Randy who parcels out office supplies in exchange for bribes of doughnuts and pastries.

A colleague eventually calls his bluff, confronting Randy with a bag of office supplies from Staples and backup from the hulking gangster character Joe Viterelli from "Analyze This." Viterelli's demand to Randy is as menacing as it is unequivocal: "Cream puff."

Staples' marketing chief Shira Goodman says buying a spot made sense since the company is in the middle of a major campaign to refocus its image on convenience. Accordingly, Staples is changing its slogan from "Yeah, We've Got That" to "That Was Easy."

"The time was right for us," Goodman said. "We had a very important message."

Expedia, the online travel site, has also bought its first Super Bowl ad, but like many advertisers the company is keeping its contents secret. Spokesman David Dennis would say only that the spot is similar to its current campaign showing how Expedia can help travelers find the right trip.

America Online, the online service owned by Time Warner Inc., is in a wide-ranging $10 million Super Bowl promotion deal includes three spots, sponsorship of the halftime show, an online poll of the ads and promotions during the NFL postseason.

"We're a diverse country, and most of the time we're doing different things," says Len Short, head of advertising for AOL. "But once in a while we all do the same thing, and the Super Bowl is one of those events. We want to be there."

For CBS, part of the Viacom Inc. media conglomerate, the Super Bowl could prove to be a bonanza. With about a week left to go, nearly 90 percent of the 60 ad spots have been sold, which marketers say is about right for an average year.

"We're in good shape," says Jo Ann Ross, the head of advertising sales for CBS.

The high demand for Super Bowl spots comes against a background of continued erosion in network TV ratings as advertisers have more choices for reaching viewers.

Thus far this season, the most popular show is "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," on CBS, which averages 26.6 million viewers every week. Only two other programs are averaging more than 20 million viewers per week, "Friends" and "Survivor."

So far this season, only CBS and Fox are averaging more viewers than they did last year, and Fox's increase is due almost entirely to the popular baseball postseason.

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