NEW YORK – The story lines are unabashedly goofy. Cavemen invent the wheel to transport a beer cooler made of stone, and a car buyer enlists the help of a tribal warrior in case he needs some extra negotiating leverage at the dealership.
For most of us, Super Bowl ads make fine entertainment. But for the advertisers who make and buy them, Sunday is white-knuckle time.
The blogging boom has created crowds of armchair critics; the price for a 30-second spot is up again, to $2.7 million; and a writers strike has wiped out many other opportunities to reach mass audiences by putting scripted dramas like "Desperate Housewives" on hold.
Even against odds like these, many major marketing powers and even a few first-timers couldn't resist the opportunity of reaching more than 90 million people in a single shot—something that's increasingly hard to do in any medium.
Advertisers still love the Internet for its ability to deliver measured results from click-throughs and carve audiences into tiny segments. But only the largest of television's "events"—such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the Oscars and the Grammys—have the muscle to pull in tens of millions of people in real time.
"There are so few media vehicles out there that reach that size audience that there's still a big value in not only reaching so many people but in such an engaging manner," said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat, a major buyer and planner of advertising.
Add the extra buzz created by the possibility of the New England Patriots making history with an undefeated season, and advertisers have a lot on the line. The placement is great if they have a winning ad, not so great if the ad tanks. Last year's viewership of 93.2 million was close to the all-time record of 94.1 million set in 1996, and many believe that record could be surpassed this year.
The results from online advertising often confirm the value of hitting big audiences with TV, Donchin said, because advertisers can measure the upswing in traffic to Web sites after an ad is broadcast.
The Super Bowl continues to draw new advertisers, including Planters packaged nut company, part of Kraft Foods Inc., as well as Cars.com, an online auto classified advertising company co-owned by the newspaper publishers Gannett Co., McClatchy Co., Tribune Co., Washington Post Co. and Belo Corp.
No neophyte in the advertising world, Kraft decided a Super Bowl spot was well worth the money last year as it began repositioning Planters beyond the $3 billion packaged nuts business to compete in the $20 billion market of salted snacks, which includes potato chips, pretzels and popcorn.
Those attract fairly different age and gender groups, says Allan Lindsay, senior director of marketing for salty snacks at Kraft. Nuts tend to be bought by adults 45 and older, while salty snacks tend to be bought by people ages 35-55, and men more than women—just the kind of people who watch the Super Bowl.
"If we really wanted to accelerate our growth, we needed to think bigger," Lindsay said. "We wanted the big platform to get our message out there ... and it's a natural venue to do that."
Lindsay, like many other advertisers, offered hints about his ad, but not the full story line. It will feature men being "drawn" to Planters' nuts, he said.
Tire maker Bridgestone Firestone North America, another first-timer, is jumping in with two spots and sponsorship of the halftime show. One ad features a car accelerating toward Richard Simmons as he dances on a road at night. In the other, a woman screams as the car she's riding in approaches a squirrel nibbling on an acorn.
Other big advertisers are venturing back to the Super Bowl after long absences. Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG, is coming back to the game after nearly 20 years, with a Godfather-themed spot. And Coca- Cola Co., whose main brand was back in the game last year for the first time since 1998, will have three or four spots this year.
Katie Bayne, chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola Co. in North America, declined to divulge details but said the company is currently testing 11 ads with viewers and will pick a winner to run on game day—a strategy that's also used by Anheuser-Busch Inc., traditionally the biggest advertiser in the game.
Bayne said Coke viewed TV events like the Super Bowl, big NASCAR races and the NCAA college basketball tournament as "critical" for getting the company's marketing message out.
Another theme cropping up again this year is amateur talent. The NFL itself ran a contest among fans last year to come up with ad ideas, and this year solicited league players to pitch ideas for a spot based on how they got into the sport. Likewise Doritos, which charmed viewers last year with spots made by amateur filmmakers, is running a contest where undiscovered musicians submit video performances of original songs. And Pepsico used its own employees in its Super Bowl ad.
Ratings from the game, being broadcast from Phoenix, are sure to boost News Corp.'s Fox network, which is already well-positioned thanks to football and "American Idol," a ratings powerhouse unaffected by the writers strike because it's not scripted.
Fox is getting as much as $2.7 million for a 30-second a spot, up from the $2.6 million CBS Corp.'s CBS network got last year.