Super Bowl Advertisers Hope for the Best

This year's game won't draw as many viewers, but advertisers like Hyundai who are shelling out for the pricey spots are tailoring their pitches to recession-strapped consumers

Super Bowl advertisers have plenty to worry about come Feb. 1. Super Bowl commercials cost as much as $3 million this year, but the contest between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers may not attract the same blockbuster, 97.5 million person audience that tuned in to watch last year's clash of the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, those who do watch are likely in no mood to shop, thanks to the weak economy.

It's hardly the event advertisers imagined during the spring and summer of 2008, when most of them bought their ads. The Super Bowl perennially offers the most expensive and widely watched advertising time on television. Last year, total ad spending on the game reached $195 million, according to Nielsen. In early September, the Super Bowl seemed to be on its usual track, with NBC crowing it had already sold 85% of its inventory. Then the stock market crashed, consumer confidence fell to record lows, and major Super Bowl advertisers like General Motors (GM) and FedEx (FDX) pulled out of the game completely. Commercial sales hit a wall—and as of Jan. 28, ad time was still available.

The owner of online florist Teleflora, who is joining Pedigree and Denny's (DENN) as first-time Superbowl advertisers, now wonders whether she made the right call. "If I were buying in October [and not earlier], I probably wouldn't have made this decision," says Lynda Resnick, co-owner of Teleflora's parent company, Roll International.

Still a Lot of Eyeballs

But marketers, optimistic by nature, say they still expect to see a strong response. And though MediaVest projects that a million fewer households will tune in compared to last year, that's still 46 million households settling down in front of the TV come game time. And the Super Bowl is one of the few places where consumers actively pay attention to the ads. "In some ways I'm thrilled I can't get out of it," claims Resnick. Teleflora's ad, which cost four times more to produce than any ad in the company's history, aims to remind the Super Bowl's male audience that Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and not to skimp on flowers. Resnick expects increased sales as a result.

Automaker Hyundai is essentially doubling down on its bet on the Super Bowl. Two weeks ago the Korean automaker purchased three spots on the Super Bowl's pregame show, adding to the two it had already purchased to run during the game itself. It plans to use the spots to push its $32,000 Genesis sedans and coupes, as well as its new recession-minded Hyundai Assurance program, which guarantees a full refund to customers who buy a car and then lose their jobs or become disabled in the following months. "We're as hit by the economy as anyone else, but we think it's a great opportunity," says Chris Perry, director of marketing and communications at Hyundai. "We're still an emerging brand really establishing itself with the American public."

Other advertisers are also refiguring their sales pitch to better fit the bleak times. Job Web site Monster (MWW) is back in the game for the first time since 2004, amid historic unemployment. Restaurant chain Denny's is using its ad to hawk a recession special in hopes of kick-starting its diminishing foot traffic. Denny's, which is also advertising on the Super Bowl for the first time ever, waited until two weeks ago to buy the spot. Thanks to the slow sales environment, "we got at least a 10% discount," says head of marketing Mark Chmiel.

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