The opening kickoff is still two weeks away. But Subaru has already sacked GM in the first skirmish of Super Bowl XXVII. It happened last October, when the two carmakers were jockeying to buy commercial time in the football extravaganza, which airs Jan. 31 on NBC.
Subaru of America Inc. snapped up six 15-second spots in the first three quarters of the game to introduce its new subcompact, the Impreza. By getting its $2.5 million order in ahead of General Motors Corp., Subaru left the giant carmaker with slim pickings. NBC could only offer GM time late in the game, which it declined. "They were a little slow on the draw," says Paul Slagle, the media buyer who negotiated Subaru's purchase. A GM spokesman says the company passed on the game because "it didn't fit into our advertising plans."
Call it the Super Bowl shuffle. Each year, marketers scramble to place spots on the big game, even as the teams are still trudging to Monday night games in Green Bay. The competition can be perfunctory: CBS was peddling commercial time, at $800,000 per 30 seconds, up to a few days before last year's game. But NBC already has sold out the 1993 Super Bowl to at least a dozen major advertisers--at $850,000 per 30 seconds.
LOPSIDED. Far and away the top-rated four hours of TV, the Super Bowl has become the last redoubt for mass marketers intent on reaching the whole nation. This year's game is getting an extra lift from new confidence among advertisers and lack of competition from the Olympic Games. Perennial sponsors, such as Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Nike Inc., are back with big commitments (table). And new players, such as Subaru and accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, will also strut their stuff for an estimated audience of 80 million. NBC could earn well over $40 million from the telecast.
With so much demand--and with so many ad dollars on the line--the battle for prime placement in the game has become fierce. "The question now is, how do you best position your $850,000," says Steve Auerbach, a buyer at DeWitt Media Inc. who placed two Super Bowl spots for Reebok International Ltd.
NBC charges the same price throughout the telecast. So it takes clout or canny negotiating to secure the best slots. Months before the game, Auerbach and his colleagues sift Nielsen ratings data to see how viewership fluctuates through the course of a typical Super Bowl. Then they must persuade clients to commit the dollars and lock in the slots before other marketers get them. Given the history of lopsided Super Bowls, most agree on one point: Getting stuck in the fourth quarter is like being sacked in your own end zone.
Only the biggest players are sure to avoid that fate. Pepsi-Cola, for example, spends at least $5 million on the telecast. This year, it bought four minutes of time. So of course, Pepsi gets what Pepsi wants--in this case, the first commercial of the game, which it may use to introduce its new Crystal Pepsi brand. Pepsi also demanded it be the only soft drink in its time periods.
THE LAST WORD. Faced with such clout, some smaller marketers resort to a bit of rationalization. Seven-Up Co., the other soft-drink maker in the Super Bowl, bought all three of its 30-second spots in the fourth quarter. Russ Klein, Seven-Up's marketing chief, says he wants to make it the "uncola" quarter. If the game is close, Seven-Up will seem prescient. Even if it is a blowout, Klein argues, viewership won't decline that much anyway.
He has a point. The Washington Redskins hammered the Buffalo Bills in last year's Super Bowl. Yet viewership dropped only 4.2 rating points, from a high of 43.5 to a low of 39.3 in the course of the game. On the other hand, most advertisers agree that even if many viewers leave the TV on in the last stages of a rout, they're likely to shift their focus to eating--or carousing. "I'm not sure how much viewers are even seeing you by then," jokes Subaru's Slagle. "They could be seeing two of your ads at once."
Slagle shrewdly avoided that for Subaru. The Japanese carmaker couldn't match the buying power of GM. But thanks to his contacts at NBC Sports, Slagle kept a minute-by-minute tab on the pace of Super Bowl ad sales. He learned GM was interested in buying time, which could have locked up the last available slots in the first half. So Slagle beat the carmaker to the punch on Oct. 27 by reserving 90 seconds. One spot airs in the first quarter, three in the second, and two in the third. Subaru's ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy Inc., hired Slagle precisely because of his network TV contacts.
Not everyone worries about being on too late. Media buyer Paul Schulman got Purina Cat Chow on the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, which doesn't air until just after the game. Schulman says he pays one-sixth the Super Bowl rate but gets 40% of the audience. Plus, he adds, "it's a gritty, fast-paced show." That can't always be said of the Super Bowl.