You think it's only football? When rival quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson aren't pitching the ball in the Super Bowl, some of America's best known athletes and entertainers will fill the TV screen in the annual advertising bonanza that's expected to include some of the most expensive 30-second marketing pitches ever.
In spite of an uncertain economy, consumer product companies, movie studios, automakers, and a couple of dot-com survivors are among some two dozen advertisers reportedly spending between $1.9 million and $2.1 million for a 30-second spot in the year's most watched televised event. Nearly all of the 61 spots have been sold, a sign that the advertising market is awakening from its extended slumber.
Super Bowl XXXVII, being played in San Diego, will be broadcast on ABC.
And here's what you'll likely see: Willie Nelson, of singing and tax trouble fame, selling H&R; Block taxpayer services. Basketball legend Michael Jordan doing double duty in separate ads for Hanes underwear and sports drink Gatorade. Maybe (but maybe not) a peek from Universal Pictures at the computer-generated star of its upcoming summer flick "The Hulk". Destiny Child's Beyonce Knowles singing a pop tune in a Spike Lee-directed ad for PepsiCola -- though, to build buzz, Pepsi isn't confirming. For sure, songstress Celine Dion belting a pitch to the suburban crowd for DaimlerChrysler's new Pacifica wagon.
And what's a Super Bowl without beer ads? Giant suds maker Anheuser-Busch has bought a full five minutes of ad time. Or a contest to win a pair of jeans with a 2.5 carat diamond button and 112 rubies? San Francisco-based Levi Strauss is giving away a pair of new Type1 pants, valued at $150,000 including cash in the pockets, to mark its gold-rush era founding 150 years ago.
What you won't see: The National Football League nixed an ad from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority because league rules ban ads that could encourage betting on sports.
Despite annual handwringing by advertisers over the astronomical cost and some high-profile departures from the lineup of past years, the Super Bowl remains, well, the Super Bowl of advertising.
"There is no such thing as a 'must buy' for advertisers. They are still minding their pennies," said Ian Beavis, chief executive of San Francisco-based ad agency Foote, Cone and Belding. "But people with big budgets looking to build brand and buzz are here." Only instead of dot-coms, which dominated advertising in 2000, movie studios and consumer product companies are back in "a return to a kind of new normal" for the Super Bowl, Beavis said.
A record 17 Internet companies guzzled 40 percent of the game's commercial time in 2000. On Sunday, just two online businesses are buying 30 seconds each.
While last year's slate of ads were heavy on patriotism and post-Sept. 11 reflection, humor and whimsy are making a comeback this year, even as the threat of a Middle East war looms.
H&R;'s new 30-second Super Bowl spot shows Nelson learning he owes millions in unexpected taxes and accepts a job pitching Mr. Smoothie shaving cream to pay the bill. H&R;'s tongue-in-cheek message: The singer should have consulted one of its tax preparers.
In real life, Nelson paid $16.7 million to satisfy the IRS after a botched investment scheme.
In a nod to tough economic times, ads for rival job-hunting sites HotJobs (owned by Yahoo) and Monster -- now in their fifth head-to-head Super Bowl match-up -- are touting services for blue-collar workers since no one is currently hiring the white-collar variety. As if Silicon Valley can't produce enough dispair, HotJobs had to go to the Czech republic to find a drill-bits factory with enough downcast ambience for the ad, which encourages workers to dream of a better job.
Why do advertisers pay such premium prices, on top of production costs that easily reach $1 million? Because the Super Bowl, for many, is as much about ads as the game on the field. And for one day of the year, TiVo users give their ad-skipping recording devices a rest.
While, on average, regular programs lose between five and 15 percent of the audience during commercial breaks, the Super Bowl is a rare exception, a new survey by ad buying firm Initiative Media finds. Last year's Super Bowl boasted nearly equivalent ratings between the program and commercial minutes, a feat unmatched by any other big-event show.
Still, over the years, big-name advertisers, including Coca-Cola and Nike, have sunk their advertising dollars elsewhere. Others, including McDonald's and Charles Schwab, opt for cheaper time sold in pre- or-post game shows -- though Schwab has nailed down the high-profile spot just before the coin toss.
If there is no new ad campaign, corporate identity or pitch person to generate buzz about, there are better returns on investments, some former Super Bowl advertisers say.
Conspicuously missing in this year's Super Bowl lineup is e--Trade, the online financial services company whose trademark chimp appeared in several memorable ads in the past three Super Bowls, including a 2001 lampoon of the dot-com bust. The company also gave up its sponsorship of half-time, which it held for the past three years.
And so where did the company decide this year to put its dollars in pursuit of 30-to-50 years-olds who still have enough cash to trade stocks? e--Trade is the official sponsor of the Rolling Stones U.S. tour.