Given the recent, record-breaking ratings history of National Football League games, experts predict Sunday's Super Bowl could attract the largest average audience in TV history: up to 115 million fans according to one estimate, or more than one-third of America's population.
Which means one thing for executives striving to craft the perfect message for the biggest advertising platform in television:
More pressure than ever to make TV history.
"The Super Bowl is the only thing left where we all sit down at the very same time and experience the very same emotions together," said Tor Myhren, president of Grey New York and one of the creators of online brokerage firm E*Trade's legendary talking babies ads. "I call it 'America's last campfire' . . . What advertisers do is gauge the mood of the nation and put that tone of voice into the Super Bowl ads."
And if there's a central message to this year's crop of ads, it's simple: We're back.
After a tumultuous economic time for car dealers, at least a dozen automakers and car-related companies will pay up to $3 million per 30-second slot for time in the Fox network's Super Bowl broadcast extravaganza. That gargantuan price tag is a return to 2008 levels after a dip last year.
Last year, one of the most noticed commercials was for Google, a bold sign that the free search engine had become a pivotal cultural force. Now, analysts note the group coupon purchasing website Groupon is buying major time around the game, including a spot inside the long sold-out Super Bowl ad lineup vacated by Pizza Hut, according to superbowl-ads.com.
"A few years ago, we had Cash for Gold advertising in the Super Bowl, this year we have BMW and Mercedes — I think you can read something into that," said Tim Calkins, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, which runs a Super Bowl Advertising Review with 40 students rating the game's advertisements using academic criteria.
Buzzed-about spots this year include unscripted TV star Kim Kardashian showing off her curves for Skechers shoes, rap star Eminem voicing a Claymation commercial for Lipton Iced Tea, Jillian Michaels and Danica Patrick revealing the new spokesmodel for Internet domain name company GoDaddy.com, and new commercials featuring the Old Spice guy, along with Myhren's talking E*Trade tots.
"You have to look at what message they choose to use and what messages connect," added Calkins, who predicted this year will see more humor and big production values, in an attempt to boost viewers' already rising confidence that the economy is getting better. "It's hard to anticipate before the game . . . but advertisers spend millions to understand what messages are going to work."
Creating a buzz
One of the touchiest tasks is getting the most advance publicity possible without revealing the entire spot before the game. Most marketers are using social media and online gimmicks — from Doritos and Pepsi- Max allowing the public to choose some Super Bowl spots to a code revealed in an ad for the film Rio that accesses a special level on the smart-phone-friendly game Angry Birds.
Myhren said such goodies help make a Super Bowl ad the biggest bargain in advertising, even at $3 million, cementing brand attitudes that can last for years.
As proof, he cites his own work, which will surface during Fox's pregame show, as his precocious talking baby trades wisecracks with game analysts like Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long. He also has another talking baby ad for the game — E*Trade already has a cheeky collection of fake outtakes online — and has produced a spot for the NFL with stars from classic TV shows such as Friends and Cheers.
"Just on YouTube, the baby ads were viewed 50 million times alone; that's half the Super Bowl audience right there," said Myhren, who initially suggested the talking baby ads four years ago as a way to show how easy online investing could be, while countering the already-mounting unease about our economic future. "It was the most Ti-Voed moment of the game . . . and the next day, more accounts opened on E*Trade than in any day in the history of the company . . . And you're not paying for the PR, the YouTube hits or the buzz."
Losing sight of goal
All the hoopla over ads — some marketers still insist half of the big game's audience shows for the commercials alone — may obscure a troubling fact: Many Super Bowl ads aren't that impressive.
Calkins blamed marketers who focus so much on getting attention, they forget to make a commercial that promotes their product, citing the infamous "cat herding" ad created by technology firm EDS (bet you didn't remember the company's name before reading it here, either) and last year's "Snapshot of America" spot created for the U.S. Census by Best in Show director Christopher Guest.
"The rise of YouTube creates an incredible challenge," the professor said. "In a world where we're swimming in very funny pieces of film, they now have to compete on a different level. Someone at an agency has spent a week scrutinizing every second in these ads, and they still end up airing spots that don't work so well."
Some advertisers can win by losing. The "discreet relationship" site fronted by a porn star, AshleyMadison.com (it helps people find partners for adultery and more), made headlines by producing an ad rejected by Fox for Sunday. And last year's Super Bowl spot by conservative group Focus on the Family featuring former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow got the world's media talking for weeks about a possible anti-abortion message, only to leave critics looking overly sensitive when the commercial didn't mention the a-word once.
Just another example of the pixie dust a little association with the Super Bowl can sprinkle on any media marketing effort.
"A lot of people say to us, 'How long can you keep doing (the talking babies ads in the Super Bowl)?' " said Myhren. "And my answer is always the same: As long as it works. And it's still working."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See clips of upcoming Super Bowl ads and more on his blog, the Feed, at www. tampabay.com/blogs/media.