Where the Super Bowl Ad Stakes Are Highest

Watch out for Levi's, Accenture, and 7-Up. First downs and field goals won't cut it -- they need TDs

The road to Super Bowl advertising fame is fraught with pitfalls and peril. Just look at last year's crop of crashed-and-burned dot-coms that busted the bank to be part of the big game. Their carefree -- and perhaps careless -- spending turned a harsh spotlight on the cost of a Super Bowl ad (about $2 million per 30-second spot this year). And let's face it: How much useful exposure can a company really get from one ad during a football game?

All the hand-wringing and second-guessing hasn't stopped the rush of companies stampeding to Super Bowl XXXV. And while many successful brands, like Budweiser, Pepsi, Visa, and Federal Express, will gracefully reprise their roles as advertiser/entertainers, many others are queued up, hoping that they, too, will make a lasting impression with the 80 million people expected to tune in on Jan. 28.

And no doubt many advertisers, at game's end, will come to the sickening conclusion that they overspent by a mile. But the opportunity to be the next winner of the Budweiser "Wassup" prize for making an indelible imprint on American culture remains a powerfule lure. Here's a look at who has the most on the line this year:

Ad most fraught with desperation: Levi Strauss. The jeans maker has never been in the Super Bowl before and consensus among marketing experts is that it's only here now because it has tried just about everything else to jump-start its brand. No question, Levi's is a venerable brand, but it has been stuck firmly in neutral for the past two years. Nothing has worked to get it back in gear -- not Internet projects, billboard ads, television commercials, nothing. The Super Bowl looks like a Hail Mary pass.

The humorous three-part series is called Jeans Donor, created by the TBWA/Chiat/Day agency in San Francisco. The spots back the launch of a new product, Levi's Re-Issue 569 Jeans for Men. The agency is well known for its many Fortune 500 clients and has significant Super Bowl experience, including the stark but memorable Apple Computer "1984" ads. The Levi ads depict a dramatic sequence of events in which a young man's life is saved by a jeans donor.

The first spot, a prequel, runs Saturday night on MTV and ESPN and may leave viewers trying to adjust their sets. The 30-second Super Bowl spot will appear in the second quarter of the game. Subsequent bits, including a 60-second collection of the story in its entirety will run post-game on ESPN. And like any good 21st century company, it's showing the ads after the broadcast at Levi.com.

Will Jeans Donor cure Levi's? It's a real long shot, according to Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trends Report. Levi's problems extend far beyond the curative powers of network television, he says. "Levi's is surrounded by able competitors," he points out. They include high-priced designer labels like Tommy Hilfiger on one side, and bargain brands like Lee on the other. What's worse, jeans, in general, are a slowing retail category. "I don't see how a television spot, even one seen by all those millions of eyeballs, can reverse that trend," Barnard says.

Company most likely to be a wallflower at the big dance: Accenture. This company, formerly Andersen Consulting, has the arduous task of making a serious business pitch in the middle of a big, noisy sports spectacle. If it airs an engaging, entertaining spot, how well can it properly pitch its services' sober, sophisticated analytical skills? And if the ad properly positions the companies' employees as intelligent, trustworthy folks to do business with, how can they possibly stand out against, say, the Budweiser frogs?

"I think sometimes the big corporations are somewhat isolated from what actually happens during these games," says Brian J. Murphy, publisher of The Sports Industry Daily. Their demographic may be tuned in to the football game, but that doesn't mean they're in the mood to think about business. It's asking a lot to tell these guys to put down their beers and think about the office even for 30 seconds, he says. "It's not what the game is about."

But therein lies the challenge. Ads from Accenture, created by the Young & Rubicam agency in New York, will be worth watching, just to see if the creators are able to somehow manage to be serious and businesslike and still make an impression with an audience that's accustomed to wisecracking amphibians. Accenture's ads will appear once in the first quarter, twice in the second quarter, and once more in the third.

Ads most openly baiting the censors: 7-Up. Every year, some company manages to snag more than its $2 million worth of publicity by cooking up a spot that makes the network's suits squirm. This year, that honor goes to 7-Up, owned by Cadbury Schweppes. The uncola wants to unleash a series of ads, also created by Young & Rubicam, in the pregame show that depict everything from nudity to flatulence to a dog getting clocked in the snout by a tossed can of soda. If none of those topics strikes you as funny, you're probably not a guy between 12 and 24.

At press time, it appeared 7-Up and CBS had come to an agreement. A few more body parts will be covered up, and a disclaimer insisting the dog was unharmed was added to the pooch spot.

Is it worth the effort? For 7-Up, yes. The brand has been struggling. In December, volume dropped more than 8%, while rivals like Coke, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew all showed healthy gains. 7-Up needs a boost. High-profile efforts like Super Bowl buys help convince retailers to prominently display certain brands -- giving them more shelf space or even an end-of-aisle position to hook into the big media event.

"Nothing wrong with getting trade support," says Chris Hoyt, of Hoyt & Co., a packaged-goods consulting company. "And maybe this is the only way a relatively small brand like 7-Up can get trade support when up against the cola giants." And while many companies may be blowing a lot of money out the door in the Super Bowl, it's actually a rather good venue for a soft drink.

Consumers may not make life decisions because of what they see during the Super Bowl, but they may well be persuaded to try a beverage. It's all about trial, says Hoyt. And error. This crop of Super Bowl ads is sure to serve up both.

By Ellen Neuborne in New York

Edited by Beth Belton