If Miss Piggy is dressing up like Jessica Simpson, monkeys are rampaging around office cubicles and networking druids are yammering into cell phones, it can only mean one thing. Super Bowl ads are on the way.
Despite nagging worries about declining TV viewership as more people plug in to their iPods and the Internet, the Super Bowl has proven to be a resilient stronghold of truly mass media. The game, which airs Feb. 5 on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, is expected to draw some 90 million viewers, along with advertisers who want to reach them.
Super Bowl ads — estimated at about $2.5 million for a 30-second spot this year — cost way more than the top price of $750,000 for a spot on the Olympics, which start on NBC just five days later. For smaller marketers, that can make up a significant chunk of their annual advertising budget, but there's a certain cachet to being seen on the Super Bowl, which is routinely the most watched broadcast of the year.
To make sure they get their money's worth several advertisers plan to leverage the impact of their spots this year by rolling out online promotions and other tie-ins.
Emerald Nuts, the snack food brand of Diamond Foods Inc., and men's deodorant Degree are both returning to the Super Bowl after successful debuts in last year's broadcast, and both are doing more online.
Degree took a chance last year with an oddball set of ads featuring doll-like figures who never took risks. While they weren't a huge hit with critics, the ads wound up generating a lot of interest online, says Kevin George, the head of marketing at Unilever, Degree's parent company.
This time, Degree will be making its new ad — which depicts daily life in a city populated entirely by stunt men — widely available for viewing and downloading on the Internet, including a "director's cut" and other variations, George says.
"It really helped get the message out there in a different way," George said of the online interest in last year's spots, which featured characters such as a "Mama's Boy" who got pushed around in a shopping cart by his mother.
"Not everybody's going to love your ads," George said. "We're concerned that the consumers we're talking to get the ad, and research showed that they did."
Coming back to the Super Bowl was an easy decision after seeing sales for Degree jump 35 percent last year, which George attributed partly to the impact from the Super Bowl ad.
"It's arguably the best, most efficient way to launch a campaign," George said.
Emerald Nuts won attention last year with an ad featuring a talking unicorn. It is putting 10 percent of its annual ad-buying budget into the Super Bowl, stepping up a recent campaign that uses the letters of its brand to spell out surreal situations. Coming up on Super Bowl Sunday: Eagle-eyed Machete Enthusiasts Recognize A Little Druid Networking Under The Stairs.
Michael Mendes, the CEO of Diamond Foods, said the company hopes to capitalize on the word-puzzle aspect of the campaign by running ads featuring the letter jumble next to the crossword puzzle in The New York Times, and inviting readers to submit their own variations online.
Also, the goofy characters in the ad — several machete-wielding businessmen and a fast-talking druid — will be appearing in an online ad campaign around the same time as the game, Mendes said. He's also hoping to get more for his money by convincing retailers to showcase his product around the time of the game, since they hope the ad will stir up sales.
Another of last year's first-timers, CareerBuilder, is also coming back with a quirky campaign backed up with an online component. The online job-search company will air more ads featuring monkeys as office workers, while also running a guerilla-marketing style e-mail chain letter featuring animated monkeys who talk.
CareerBuilder, an online help-wanted ad company, is jointly owned by the newspaper publishers Gannett Co., Knight Ridder Inc. and Tribune Co.
Tim Spengler, executive vice president of Initiative, an ad-buying agency owned by The Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., says marketers are adapting their campaigns to deal with an increasingly fragmented audience.
"Media is becoming a more personalized experience, but in a communications program there is still going to be a mix of mass awareness with more one-to-one communications," Spengler said. "For the marketer, the art is going to be in the mix of mass and personalized media."
Other notable ads in the Super Bowl this year include a spot from Dove soap, another Unilever property, which is continuing its "Campaign for Real Beauty" campaign with spots focused on improving self-esteem among teenage girls.
Toyota Motor Corp. will also have a warm-hearted spot featuring a Hispanic father and son who switch easily between Spanish and English, and Aleve, a pain reliever owned by Bayer AG, is using a spot featuring actor Leonard Nimoy. Longtime advertisers PepsiCo Inc. and Anheuser-Busch Cos. will also be back.
Pizza Hut, a unit of Yum! Brands Inc., which also owns KFC and Taco Bell, is once again showcasing the Muppets, who won over viewers last year with an airborne Miss Piggy. The ad also features singer Jessica Simpson, who also appeared alongside the Jim Henson characters two years ago. Miss Piggy and Simpson will wear matching outfits.
"The Muppets bring a wink and a smile to it," says Tom James, chief marketing officer for Pizza Hut. "It's pizza after all — it's not something that serious. It's about fun and enjoyment."