Do Super Bowl Ads Still Work? Yes, If You Sell Controversy (or Junk Food)

The Super Bowl XLIV advertising buzz began right on time this year, but not for the usual reasons. First came Focus on the Family, a conservative group planning to air a 30-second pro-life-advocacy commercial, starring young quarterback Tim Tebow. In the past, CBS (CBS) has shied away from running controversial advertising -- and when a gay dating site,, tried to buy airtime for a 30-second spot of its owned, CBS declined.Lost in the hubbub about these dueling spots is the question that returns once a year to befuddle corporations and amaze viewers: Do Super Bowl commercials still work? Are they worth the jaw-dropping costs?

CBS sold out the last remaining slots on the Feb. 7 Super Bowl telecast for more than $3 million this week. Even as prime-time network shows are shedding viewers, the Super Bowl may reach 100 million viewers on Sunday, which would make it the most-watched TV show in history. But some advertisers will fumble their multimillion investments, while the big winners will be advertisers marketing controversy -- and junk food.

Beer, Snack Foods, and Pizza

Back in 1990, an advertiser could secure a 30-second Super Bowl spot for a mere $700,000. Over the past 20 years, that price has more than quadrupled. And advertisers with the best chance of getting a return on their Super Bowl investment sell commodities in high demand during the game -- beer, snack foods, and pizza. "Isn't that exactly the kind of environment you want your brand to live in?" says Robert Passikoff, president of brand research consultancy Brand Keys.

It's not just price that's changed dramatically over the years, but consumers' interactions with advertising. That evolving relationship highlights advertisers' risks with placing Super Bowl advertising. "Marketers should be more careful, because of the cost and the complexity," Passikoff says. "Consumers are in control. They can time-shift you, zap you, or talk to one another."

Doritos, for example, is asking viewers to vote on three finalists for its Super Bowl spot, a typically effective strategy to get football fans interested in the ads leading up to the event. Here is one of the contenders:

Bad Publicity

Worse, spending $1 million to make a commercial and $3 million to air it can backfire if it turns viewers off. "This is marketing -- it shouldn't be gambling," Passikoff says. Take the dot-com Super Bowl, the 2000 game that featured more than a dozen little-known dot-coms. With many of those companies now defunct -- remember -- that gambit proved that a big marketing budget can't compensate for a lousy business plan.

The five brands best positioned to get a good ROI for the 2010 Super Bowl are Anheuser-Busch's (BUD) Budweiser, Diamond Foods's (DMND) Pop Secret popcorn, Hyundai (HYMTF) cars, Denny's Corp. (DENN) restaurants, and Viacom's (VIA) movie Iron Man 2, according to Brand Keys. Those less likely to get a return: Levi Strauss's Dockers and first-time advertiser HomeAway, an online vacation-rental service, the research firm says.

But marketers aren't content to sit on the sidelines anymore. Many leak their Super Bowl ads -- a description, a teaser, even the entire ad -- to spark viral marketing by consumers using social-networking sites long before the kickoff. Denny's will repeat its popular Grand Slam event, offering free breakfast on the Tuesday after the game. To keep viewers interested in watching TV for its spot, Denny's released this teaser, in which a man warns chickens to get out of town. Why? "Watch the game February 7 to find out," the teaser instructs.

Getting the Message to YouTube

And controversy doesn't hurt. Domain registrar Go Daddy will make its sixth Super Bowl appearance, keeping to its style of racy advertising. Viewers don't have to wait for Feb. 7 to see its ads: The company has posted some Super Bowl commercial candidates online. But its biggest boon may have come from CBS's banning one of its ads from the telecast, sparking a pre-game controversy and media blitz. The company is prominently featuring the commercial in question on its Website, with "banned" stamped in red over a still, and the question to users: "Do you think it's offensive?"

"We're on a shorter leash with the network," says Go Daddy chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman. "They look for our stuff, because we know we push the envelope." But getting out its Super Bowl ads early has helped with brand-building. "It primes the viewer to make sure you watch," she says, "because on Super Bowl Sunday, you'll see the ad and the rest of the unaired footage."

GoDaddy's six-year investment in the Super Bowl has paid off, Rechterman says -- it's built its market share of domain registrations to about 50% from just 16%. "So in four or five short years," she says, "it's been very effective to help build the brand and to promote our company."

Electronic Arts had to change its Super Bowl spot after CBS objected to the tag line "Go to Hell" for the new video game Dante's Inferno. The company changed the ad to read, "Hell awaits." Still, according to Brand Keys, Electronic Arts is likely to get a boost from the ads.

Promotion Money Can't Buy
But this year's biggest winner on ROI, hands-down, has been Mancrunch. The gay dating site asked CBS to approve an ad featuring two male football fans getting hot and heavy during a game. There was some question of whether Mancrunch had the funds to pay for the ad, even while CBS still had slots remaining, according to Advertising Age.

CBS rejected the commercial, but the move was brilliant for Mancrunch, given its huge amount of free publicity -- and more than 450,000 hits to its commercial on YouTube. The best investment, naturally, is one that does all that and doesn't cost $3 million for 30 seconds.
For more Super Bowl news, check out FanHouse's Super Bowl page.
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