TV's Last Man Standing

Why the Super Bowl is still the biggest game in town for advertisers

On Feb. 4, Super Bowl XLI will draw an enormous audience of fans nailed to their couches, transfixed by television's most enduring spectacle.

There will also be a football game.

As we all know, part of the genius in the marketing of the Super Bowl is that the ads, generally created especially for the telecast, are as much a part of the event as beer burps and thick necks. Peter Gardiner, chief media officer of ad agency Deutsch, had a fine time attending the Bowl last year save for one thing: "I missed the commercials," he says.

If, like me, you hope one day the Super Bowl and its attendant mania will start shrinking like so many other mass-media spectacles--well, forget it. The broadcast nets scramble to right their listing ships, but the Super Bowl blithely sails on. Last year the single best-rated TV program--besting any series' offering by 2 to 1--was the Super Bowl. In second place, also by a wide margin: the Super Bowl's postgame show. These numbers are extra juiced by the perception that live sports and big events are TiVo-proof, and that with the Super Bowl, there is the expectation that ads are, for once, worth sticking around for. Why don't TV executives and advertisers try this more often?

THE INTERNET is wreaking its creative destruction on much of the media, but in each sector certain properties look likely to escape erosion longer than their brethren. Call them the Last Men Standing. The Last Man Standing in the music business is the classic-rock oldies revue, as typified by Super Bowl XL's half-time entertainment, the Rolling Stones. (Now that they've lasted into middle age, expect U2 to tour, with ever-increasing profits, well into their senescence.) The Last Man Standing among the glossy magazines will be the fashion-heavy portfolio of Condé Nast Publications, as typified by Vogue; image-heavy advertising has yet to leak onto the Internet. TV's Last Man is the live event, à la Super Bowl or Oscars. (Not for nothing do ad insiders call the Oscars "the Super Bowl for women.") Savvy marketers talk the talk about the declining effectiveness of the 30-second spot and image advertising in general, as opposed to ads introducing a new product or promotion. But with live events these rules are suspended. Yes, one leading marketing executive told me the Super Bowl is losing its appeal for advertisers. He cited as evidence the fact that the rate of increase for a 30-second spot is slowing; last year, ABC (DIS ) got $2.5 million for a 30-second spot. If I were running a network, I'd be pretty happy to take a slight increase on top of that. (Recall that dollars committed in the network upfront--the deeply silly season in which marketers buy most ads for the upcoming season--were flat to down in '05 and '06.)

And so, sharp chief marketing officers like Allstate's (ALL ) Joe Tripodi still concede the Super Bowl's value. "If you have some new news or if you have to launch something," he says, "it's a great venue." The classic example is Apple (AAPL ) Computer's famous "1984" ad, which brought out the Macintosh and neatly summarized Apple's us-vs.-them positioning that lingers to this day, not that it stopped the company from belly-flopping in the '80s and '90s.

There are few 1984s because there are few Super Bowls. It boasts a confluence of big advertisers--cars, beer, and burgers--convinced they need adjacency to the high-testosterone event. The current media climate argues against another TV event causing a spasm of new ads. Agencies and marketing executives are kept on short leashes these days and terrified of failure. Besides, Super Bowl miscues make for expensive flops. Producing an average TV ad costs around $400,000, says Tripodi. Toss in Super Bowl-size trimmings, and you get to a million bucks quickly, not including network time. Today's world will not shrink the Super Bowl, but it has shrunk the stature of conceivable competitors--and the will of advertisers to match event-TV with event-ads as they do in the first week of February.

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By Jon Fine

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