Super Bowl dilemma: Are the ads worth the price?

At $3 million for 30 seconds, advertisers need a big score in the big game. Otherwise, the Monday morning quarterbacks will eat them alive. No pressure.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

Three million dollars to make a 30-second pitch? You might as well sail a Hail Mary pass into the end zone and hope for the best.

But even though Super Bowl 43 takes place against a backdrop darkened by an economic recession and rising unemployment, executives involved with current and previous Super Bowl advertising spots remained convinced that Sunday's game offers a potential payoff that outweighs any attendant risks.

"We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it would work," said Warren Adelman, the president and Chief Operating Officer of Internet registrar GoDaddy.com.

Frank Costantini On Ideas

This year marks GoDaddy's fifth Super Bowl appearance, and Adelman is unequivocal about the role he says the advertisements have played in his company's growth.

"We think it helped put GoDaddy on the map," he said.

That may be true, but it's become an increasingly costly map. NBC is charging $3 million for each half minute of air time. Of course, advertisers also know this will be the most-watched television event of the year in the United States.

Frank Costantini was behind the 1994 Lipton Original Ice Tea commercial with multi-sport star Bo Jackson, which still ranks among the all-time great Super Bowl spots, and he maintains that the Super Bowl still is a "bargain."

"I'm one of those ad guys who still believe that there's value in that 30-second television commercial," he said. "And in this venue, I think there's even greater value."

"There's no other time in the world during the year when you have both a captive and a captivated audience," he added. Costantini these days is partner and chief creative officer of On Ideas, an advertising agency in Jacksonville, Fla.

"You're not necessarily going to see the needle move immediately. It may take a month or more. But there's nothing like that moment. Your expectations are piqued. It's the one show where people literally are glued to seeing what's going to happen during the break. So you're focused...it's an audience with major desire."

And an audience of advertisers with perhaps even more desire. A survey released earlier this week by Emarketer found that marketers remain convinced the ads are worth the price. One reason: while general television viewership is in decline, the Super Bowl ratings remain sky high. What's more, an unusually large number of people pay close attention to the commercials during time-outs.

So it is that advertisers are virtually guaranteed a huge lift in Web traffic immediately after the Super Bowl. Of course, translating that initial spike into something more tangible is the tricky part.

Advertising execs caution companies not to delude themselves into believing their prime-time appearances will automatically resolve their product and marketing challenges for the next 12 months. If anything, it's just the start of the relationship with their customers.

Marshall Ross, the chief creative officer of the Cramer-Krasselt advertising agency, oversaw CareerBuilder.com's series of "monkey" Super Bowl ads. His agency also was the brains behind the Master Lock's Super Bowl spot. And he quite frankly acknowledges that from a TV commercial point of view, advertisers are taking a big risk.

"It's a rip-off," Ross said. "It's not really worth it from an advertising television point of view."

That's because any examination of success or failure involves a more nuanced calculus of considerations. For Ross and others, it's the follow-up that determines success and failure. Recalling Master Lock's Super Bowl experience, he said that the company spent half its annual budget advertising during the game. The rest of year was spent leveraging that ad with hardware retailers.

Marshall Ross Cramer-Krasselt

"You need a big program going into the Super Bowl, and a big program going out," Ross said. "Otherwise, you're doing it for the wrong reasons...It's only a dumb thing to do if you think this is all you have to do."

Evan Contorakes, CEO of the Miami-based Ronin Advertising Group, can identify with that comment. During Super Bowl 40, his client, PS Cleaning Solutions, paid for a commercial about cleaning solutions. The spot wasn't a favorite, but the bigger problem was what happened--or more accurately, what did not happen--next.

"They essentially didn't have the back-end budget, so there was a slow churn off the store shelves, he said. "You have to do follow-up media, and couponing, etcetera, in the course of the year...If you don't have the marketing dollars, then the product will just sit."

That experience has left Contorakes more realistic about the expectations companies should have in the lead-up to the big game. Like many colleagues in the profession, Contorakes acknowledges the "great reach" afforded by a Super Bowl appearance. But in a recession, he says there are more cost-effective ways to promote a brand message.

"The cost per thousand (of the Super Bowl) is astronomical, and with all the deals to be had now, there's a thousand better ways to do it," he said.

To be sure, that's a strong argument in a weak economy. Still, if they have the budget, advertisers will want in. And that explains why the networks so covet broadcasting this event each year.

Of course, if the game turns out to be a blowout and your company's advertisement was timed to run in the fourth quarter, it will be a tough office commute the next day to face all those Monday morning quarterbacks. But that's the nature of a Hail Mary.

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