It’s true. Jessica Simpson sold me a pizza. She didn’t deliver it, unfortunately, but the gorgeous and occasionally photogenic star got me thinking about Pizza Hut’s Cheesy Bites Pizza – you know, the one with the “pull-apart outer crust made up of 28 cheese-filled bites” (hence the name I guess) that are “lightly seasoned with the flavor of garlic butter on the outside.” While the home of America’s Favorite Pizza will most likely continue to air the ad, I doubt the artery clogging, cellulite inducing but incredibly tasty dish will have the same affect the next time I see it aired. For that special day was the Super Bowl, and like many of the 93 million watching, especially hack pundits, myself included, I watched for the commercials as intently, if not more so, than the game itself.
This is our third year covering the Super Bowl. What sticks in my mind from that first year are scattered memories, the Ford Mustang commercial with the guy frozen in the front seat and writing my notes about certain commercials on a napkin. There were many more, and better, commercials but that one sticks in my head as I went to go grab a pen. It’s virtually impossible to remember all the commercials. I remember counting last year and came up with something in the neighborhood of 59 different commercials marketing some 62 different brands. Someone with more time could provide the number this year, but I suspect we would find an equivalent number if not more.
While many suspect we have entered a mini-bubble, at least with respect to valuation of certain (namely) Web 2.0 companies, at least we did not see any of them advertising this year. I can only recall a few dot-coms that advertised – the dreadful SalesGenie.com spots, no doubt thrown in with their equally out of place sponsorship of the pre-game show, being one. Careerbuilder.com returned with new spots and a new theme; workers in a setting more appropriate for chimps have replaced the chimps placed in a human environment. As an employee of a company with a pretty outstanding work environment, I could not quite identify with their commercials this year. I found the chimps’ skit more clever despite the clichéd use of our genetic brethren, but I’ve heard that those working in large corporations could identify. The third dot-com that comes to mind doesn’t even qualify as a dot-com. The American Heart Association ran two spots featuring a man in a heart suit being chased by bad guys dressed up to represent those things that can increase the risk of a heart attack. Had you not gone to the website you would not have known that the AMHA sponsored the ads. Unlike years past, others did not follow the same strategy of promoting a one-off URL (e.g., Volvo and Richard Branson in 2006). An arbitrager might look at the situation and say, how many people would it take to make money on the ad. (At a $5 eCPM, you would need 460,000,000 visits to your site to break even… not so promising.)
In the end, the SuperBowl commercials are a product in and off themselves regardless of what they specifically advertise. Marketers started to put two and two together, especially after realizing that people turn to the web to look for the ads before and after the game. In a continuation of trend that emerged last year, we saw companies using paid search to augment their exposure. Do a search for superbowl ads and you will find enough paid search listings to fill up all available slots on the first page of Google. Whether a product of Google’s doing, it’s hard to say but YouTube occupies the first paid slot. Coke, Careerbuilder, and GoDaddy also appear offering users a chance to watch their commercials. TBS takes advantage of people’s interest in funny ads to promote its, not directly related to the Super Bowl, VeryFunnyAds.com site. Not necessarily intuitively, but perhaps still wisely, the NY Times and Edmunds also leverage the Super Bows ad interest. The Times promotes their look at violence in ads while Edmunds promotes just the car commercials. I didn’t find any advertisers on several commercial specific terms, though, e.g. “doritos commercials.” Overall, whether marketers succeeded in using search depends on where you read. MediaPost has a piece saying “Super Bowl Advertisers Beef Up Paid Search Campaigns” while a story from AdAge frowns, “Many Super Bowl Marketers Drop the Ball on Search.” Then again, I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Marketers might have scored poorly at using paid search, but it didn’t take them long try and jump on the user-generated bandwagon. We all knew it would happen, but I don’t think many would have predicted just how well it would have worked. By many sites accounts, the top ad this year didn’t cost the typical cool million (on top of the 2mm+ airtime fee). Instead it cost Doritos less than one-hundred thousand, the approximate amount they paid out to winners of their Crash the Super Bowl contest. As reported last September, for their first appearance in a Super Bowl spot since 2001, the brand (part of chip giant Frito-Lay, a Big Game regular) bypassed its agency and worked with Yahoo to run a contest where users submitted their own 30-second commercials and site visitors picked the ultimate winner. GM partially committed to the masses with its Super Bowl College Ad Challenge. In this contest though, the students pitched the ideas but did not produce them. It resulted in a Madison Avenue looking ad with a concept that most “professionals” might not have thought to do.
As the amazing journalist, writer, commentator Frank Deford talked about in his Viewpoint column for Sports Illustrated and on NPR’s Morning Edition, the Super Bowl is “America’s ultimate reality show.” At the end of the sixty minutes that takes three hours, someone will win and someone will lose. From Billy Joel playing the national anthem, the flyover featuring a view inside the cabin before seeing the planes, to the NFL produced “They Play for Me” segment, and yes, even the ads. They all heighten the drama and add to the intensity of the event. It’s not that the commercials this year weren’t good; some were fantastic; it’s that the stakes keeps getting higher, and that doesn’t refer to the price. We expect each to outdo the last, to be unique, unexpected, and memorable. If they don’t make us laugh, they should leave us dazzled, and if not dazzled, they should move us, and so on. See what you come up with if you have that pressure but have to add thinking about search, trying to tap into users for content, leveraging user-generated sites for distribution, what Tivo will find, as well as those doing brain scans of users. We get some duds, some ho-hum, and under-appreciate the standouts. At least the pizza was good.