The Super Bowl is on track to remain one big, glitzy bash even in these tough economic times.
That's not to say some advertisers aren't nervous about buying expensive ad slots as business falters. Some stalwarts such as General Motors Corp., FedEx Corp. and Garmin Ltd. won't be advertising on the Feb. 1 broadcast on NBC. Playboy Enterprises Inc. isn't throwing its customary party at the game, for the first time in nine years.
But aggressive marketing by NBC to secure ad deals before last September's financial meltdown helped to ensure Super Bowl XLIII, between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, won't be a marketing bust.
NBC said 90 percent of the Super Bowl ads had sold as of mid-January. Most ads have sold for about $3 million per 30-second spot — an all-time high price for the Super Bowl, which is the most watched event in the U.S., with about 100 million U.S. viewers.
The sales pace matched those of previous years and the network said it was in discussions on the remaining unsold spots. Most are in the fourth quarter, and tend to go for slightly less than other positions in the broadcast.
"There is unrivaled attention surrounding the game," said Brian Walker, senior director of communications at NBC Sports in New York. "As research confirms, it remains the most powerful vehicle for an advertiser to promote its brand and products."
While some high-profile advertisers have pulled the plug, many are staying put and some, such as Mars Inc.'s Pedigree pet food, will appear in the Super Bowl for the first time.
But the tone of some ads this year will reflect tough times. As Tim Calkins, marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management puts it: A good ad connects with its audience. And that audience is stressed about finances.
Take the case of Hyundai Motors America.
Automotive ads during the Super Bowl tend to focus on vehicle launches, and Hyundai was planning to run two 30-second spots for its Genesis Coupe — one with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach piece that viewers can re-edit online.
But now, the South Korean carmaker might exchange one of the ads for a spot featuring a new incentive program that forgives auto loans for car buyers who lose their income within a year of the purchase.
"We know consumers are concerned about their future earnings," said Joel Ewanick, vice president of marketing at Hyundai Motor Co.'s Fountain Valley, California-based American division. "That's keeping a whole bunch of people on the sidelines from buying a new car."
Longtime Super Bowl patron Anheuser-Busch is taking a different approach. The Budweiser brewer said it wants its ads to uplift and entertain viewers instead of reminding them about the economy.
The company is still spending heavily on the Super Bowl, even after announcing 1,400 job cuts in December that were tied to its acquisition by InBev SA. Anheuser-Busch will be airing 4 1/2 minutes worth of ads — 30 seconds more than what it purchased last year — broken up into two 60-second ads and five half-minute spots.
The Super Bowl persists as a unique marketing vehicle because it's known as much for its commercials as the game itself. A TNS Media survey released this month confirmed that people watch commercials throughout the game, instead of switching channels.
"The Super Bowl remains as truly the only property that has the ability to reach the largest mass audience across all demographics at one time," said TNS Media CEO Dean DeBiase.
That's why Audi of America is staying put and buying a 60-second spot. The German automaker Audi AG wants to raise its profile as a luxury brand for younger, affluent consumers.
"We need to make the Audi brand far more popular and far more known," said Chief Marketing Officer Scott Keogh. "That's why we do the Super Bowl and the Olympics."
Last year, traffic to Audi's Web site tripled in the month leading up to the Super Bowl — as details about the ads were teased — and the month immediately after.
In the face of dismal automotive news, Audi said it's important to communicate strength and optimism. Or as Keogh put it, "This is a brand that's spending money."
The Go Daddy Group Inc., which registers Internet domain names, is unapologetic about splurging on the Super Bowl. This is the same company that unabashedly threw a $2 million holiday party last month — flying in thousands of employees and guests to Arizona — as other firms cut back. CEO Bob Parsons rode a motorcycle into a concert that featured Joan Jett and Sinbad at Phoenix's Chase Field.
GoDaddy is elated that NBC has approved two somewhat racy ads for the Super Bowl, one of which will air after a consumer vote. Censors disapproved its ad for last year's Super Bowl, so GoDaddy aired a spot telling viewers to go to its Web site to watch the commercial. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based GoDaddy got 1.5 million Web hits before the game ended.
"Our ads are fun, edgy and slightly inappropriate," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Driscoll.
That figures to get attention no matter how the economy is doing.