By David Kiley Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6 was a contest between rival cities of the American Revolution: Boston and Philadelphia. But the advertising during the sports battle, historically the big game within the big game, was anything but revolutionary. Thank Janet Jackson and her historic wardrobe malfunction in last year's half-time show for advertising that has been sanitized for our protection.
It's a shame. The Super Bowl has long been the "Fight Club" of Madison Avenue. Decide to run an ad on the game, and you'd better be prepared with your best moves. Some advertisers and ad agencies rightly view it as a test of their creative cojones. Others, wrongly, decide that 100 million pairs of eyes are enough and don't feel challenged to break creative barriers or otherwise stimulate the viewers. They just like the big audience.
WATER-COOLER TOPIC. This is the marketing equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight. And it's bad business. To buy time in the big game without pushing the envelope or otherwise swinging for the fences, attempting the 60-yard pass, or the flea-flicker on fourth-and-five in the fourth quarter is to look like a chump brand in front of the biggest TV audience of the year.
Advertisers who buy into the game but opt out of the creative high-stakes contest run the risk of not only being ineffective, but disappointing consumers. Unlike the average Sunday afternoon NFL game where commercial breaks are times to get a fresh bowl of chips, visit the little quarterback's room, or channel surf to a few minutes of The Guns of Navarone, Super Bowl viewers typically watch the ads with only slightly less attention than they pay to the game. (See "Simplicity Scores at the Big Game" to find out which spot wins the BusinessWeek Online Grand Brand Award for the best Super Bowl ad.)
The expectation is that the commercials, much hyped in the media for weeks beforehand, will provide a reward that makes it worthwhile to hang around. Reach for the stars in terms of entertaining the viewer, and the brand becomes a hero and the topic of water-cooler talk for at least a few days. One sharply written and produced ad in the context of the Super Bowl can trump the effect of running the same pitch 20 or 30 times during other shows.
BLURRED BOUNDARIES. Ads that the media has previewed from Anheuser-Busch (BUD), MasterCard, CareerBuilder.com, and a few others have some good moments. But nothing I've seen so far stands out as a "big game" ad. More noteworthy are spots that got pulled from the lineup because of uptight network executives at Fox.
One ad, showing what I thought was just the right note of humor, was a Budweiser commercial in which a backstage grip at last year's Super Bowl used Janet Jackson's bustier to twist the top off his beer, ripped the costume, and tried to tape the hole shut -- resulting in her infamous wardrobe malfunction. (An ad for GoDaddy.com, which also spoofs the same incident, was mysteriously approved for air.)
A commercial for the new Lincoln (F) pickup truck was pulled because it featured a minister lovingly admiring the new vehicle and then posting on his church's marquee that the topic of the sermon that day would be lust. Victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests complained that the ad was insensitive to their plight, so it was yanked.
I didn't think the pitch was very good to begin with. But producing advertising that offends no one's sensibilities and is still effective as brand communication is like trying to pass Social Security reform that makes all constituencies happy. Forget it.
Advertisers these days are having a tough time discerning the lines of appropriateness. Who can blame them? The airwaves are full of contradictions about what's "appropriate." Take a look at some of the most popular TV shows of the last 10 years. Seinfeld, Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City all use sex and sexual innuendo as a vehicle for comedy, titillation, or both. We vote for what we like with our eyeballs and wallets.
BUCKLING UNDER PRESSURE? The networks have no problem airing Viagra (PFE) and Cialis (LLY) commercials on all manner of shows, including the Super Bowl, with ad copy that goes into "erectile dysfunction" and "four-hour erections." Vice-President Cheney, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and conservative TV moralizer Joe Scarborough appear on Don Imus' morning radio/TV show, on which penis gags and comments are common along with calling women, including legislators, "skanks." But run a pitch for shampoo or soda pop that uses sex to sell, and the morality police swoop in.
And how about what's appropriate in the context of fair play? I'm bothered by Fox's decision to ban a couple of ads from Miller Brewing that took fun and competitive shots at Anheuser's Bud ads. These two businesses frequently snipe at each other over whose beer tastes better (a laughable argument to those who have tasted both and opt for smaller brand brews that actually taste like beer and not tiger sweat).
The head of sales at Fox apparently buckled under pressure from Anheuser, which didn't appreciate having its brand held up to spit-balling after committing $10 million to $20 million to run multiple TV spots. Perhaps Anheuser got its way as consolation for having its ad parody of last year's half-time show yanked.
COULDN'T COMPETE. The big game wasn't without pulchritude. After all, sex sells. But it takes more than that to score with the Super Bowl audience. Pepsi (PEP), which has run some of the games' most iconic spots in the past, bet on celebrity-heavy ads that teamed up the soda and iPods (AAPL). Volvo, a Super Bowl first-timer, hoped to win points by tying its game ad into a sweepstakes to win a trip to space. And Frito-Lay relied on producer-director Spike Lee, who hasn't distinguished himself in his advertising efforts in the past.
It's ironic that football's championship game can take a backseat to the advertising on its broadcast. But this year, for the many commercials that couldn't compete with the game or the creative heights of past spots, the advertisers probably shouldn't have bothered spending the big money. Kiley is Marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York