You Spent How Much!
Another Inquiry into Whether Super Bowl Commercials
are Worth the Expense?

by Robert Passikoff

Without really looking for them, I counted 23 studies, assessments and critiques of the Super Bowl. No, not how the Raiders threw the game away. Not the game itself, which generates an enormous audience, usually 100 + million viewers, but the commercials that appear during the game.

The Super Bowl generates enormous reach, but it's also a vehicle that offers advertisers and their agencies the chance to show off their skills - or, as often happens, their lack thereof. I have friends who couldn't care less about the game but who tape the event just to be able to zap the game and cheer or boo the commercials. But the question remains: what did the advertisers really get for their money.

I remember the old saying "it doesn't matter what they say about you, as long as they spell your name right." But that was a lot more true back in the days when what they said about you wasn't the lead joke in Letterman's monologue. Or before the opinions of media (and non-media) pundits were beamed worldwide via satellite.

What got me thinking about this was a throwaway line from Katie Couric on the Monday after the big game. She and Matt Lauer were discussing the game and the commercials, and she said something like "yeah, I wasn't all that impressed with what ran this year." Wow! At $2+ million for a 30-second spot you wonder why advertisers would pay for the privilege of having their commercials rated, assessed, dissed, dissected and generally re-examined. Especially when every study conducted every year produces no noticeable blip on the purchase interest scale. And that's exactly what happens during the week following the game. Everyone becomes an advertising guru and comments on the spots, and virtually no one sees any real payback for their efforts.

Those of us who really are in advertising are not immune. Terry Tate "Office Linebacker" was getting the buzz as one of the best commercials, And I might have voted for that commercial myself, but I couldn't remember exactly what it was advertising, or for whom. The stratospherically compensated Michael Jordan showed up in two campaigns: Gatorade and Hanes tagless tee shirts. That's where Jordan watches as Jackie Chan scratches at the tag on the tee shirt rubbing his neck. I guess there are lots of folks who, like me, don't find tags all that annoying; at least not annoying enough to think a company would base a "brand differentiation strategy" on such a minor attribute - and lay out all that money to promote it.

But there I go again, being rational. Besides paying to boost sales, all those Super Bowl advertisers also paid for the joy of having me - and thousands like me - spend the next week or criticizing their commercials, their strategies and their brands. In an economy when every advertising dollar counts, it makes you wonder about the wisdom of this kind of marketing. Mae West once said, "It's better to be looked over than overlooked." But isn't that to presume that the spots are, in fact, being looked over? There's no guarantee that one's Super Bowl spot won't run during bathroom breaks, or while viewers scoot out for another cold one - which may or may not be the beer that's spending those millions to be "looked over." I did like the Budweiser Zebra spot though.

The reality is that each year, Super Bowl post-buy analyses reveal a disturbing fact: major advertisers' spots are indeed dissected, loved, hated, and recalled - including many advertisers who did not actually run spots! Worse yet, advertisers who poured their treasure into Super Bowl spots are not recalled, not even on the basis of "category aided recall." And purchase indicators are dismal.

But there's another showbiz saying, "you pays your money, you takes your chances." It's just that Super Bowl advertising means paying a huge sum of money - on a very chancy chance. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if they can spell your name right if nobody remembers seeing it.


Robert Passikoff is founder of Brand Keys Inc. (New York), a brand and customer loyalty consultancy. He can be reached at 212-532-6028, x12, or robertp@brandkeys.com. Visit www.brandkeys.com for more.

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