Firms Split on Value of Bowl Ads

Times Staff Writer

During Super Bowl XIX on Sunday, more than 2,000 Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. agents will sponsor parties at football fans' homes across the country, providing the popcorn, a small game trophy and a megaphone that sports the Milwaukee-based company's logo.

The idea will be to encourage viewers to stay tuned in when the action shifts from the field to commercials.

With advertising slots on ABC's six-hour Super Bowl telecast priced as high as $525,000 for 30 seconds--the most expensive in television history--Northwestern and the 40-odd other sponsoring companies want to get the most out of their million-dollar minutes.

"It reduces the cost of selling," John Caspari, Northwestern's advertising and corporate information officer, said of the company's Super Bowl kits, which also include aspirin and party favors with the company logo. "If we generate 2,000 parties with 10 people each, that's 20,000 extra people we reach."

Although ABC says it has sold out all 28 minutes of advertising time during the game itself to companies ranging from IBM Corp. to Soloflex Inc., a mail-order exercise equipment firm in Hillsboro, Ore., the network found some resistance from normally big-spending corporate advertisers.

The Chevrolet division of General Motors Corp., the biggest sponsor of the event last year, when commercials on CBS cost $485,000 for 30 seconds, balked at paying $525,000 for a half-minute this year, saying it was too expensive.

And Apple Computer Inc., which made a splash last year with its "1984" commercial promoting the Macintosh computer, waffled until finally deciding late Wednesday to purchase a $1-million, 60-second spot this year.

An Apple spokeswoman would not say whether the company will use the slot for its costly new "1984" follow-up commercial, produced in London for about $500,000. But industry sources said they expect the computer company to air the ad, which shows a line of business executives marching in lock step and singing the "Snow White" tune, "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go," as they follow one another off a cliff and into oblivion.

The last-minute decision to buy time on the Super Bowl followed weeks of heated debate among officials of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company and its ad agency, Chiat/Day Inc. of Los Angeles, according to sources at both companies. Top officials of both companies were said to be cool to the ad on both marketing and creative grounds: Its message was not consistent with Apple's recent efforts to win a larger share of the business market, they said, and the new ad would invite unwanted comparison with last year's feat rather than focus attention on Apple products.

Apple will also distribute 85,000 seat cushions, displaying the Apple logo, to spectators at the game.

Among other companies that bought time early on, there are few complaints about the cost of commercial time for this year's game.

"The cost does go up painfully, but when you consider the alternatives it's more economical to use the Super Bowl than reach the audience through other vehicles," said Russell Bauer, advertising manager for Milwaukee-based Master Lock Co. "It's important that we have a national showcase for our product (a padlock that withstands a bullet)," he said, adding that even at $1 million a minute it will cost a company about a penny to reach each of the projected 100 million television viewers.

"Look, it's the Super Bowl!" exclaimed Jerry Wilson, president of Soloflex. "Advertising (on the game) gives the company more credibility; it's a statement that we have arrived."

What's more, Wilson insisted, Super Bowl advertising works. He said Soloflex, which takes orders on a toll-free number, received 60,000 calls in the month after it advertised on last year's game. That was the largest number of inquiries in one month in the company's six-year history. He said he expects to exceed that number in the month after this year's event.

But other advertising experts aren't so sure about the wisdom of spending $1 million to advertise on the Super Bowl.

"There's always a point of diminishing returns," said David Waterman, a Los Angeles-based media consultant and an adjunct professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC. "I don't know of any studies about the attentiveness of viewers during sporting events." The high price of Super Bowl commercials, he said, "is more a function of supply and demand." Indeed, there has been no detailed study to determine whether viewers stick around for Super Bowl commercials or rush to the kitchen or bathroom during commercial breaks.

"For many years, advertisers have debated sponsorship of the Super Bowl, and they've asked, 'Is it worth it?' " said Ron Kaatz, a senior vice president of J. Walter Thompson. To answer that question, he said, his agency plans to conduct a study after this year's game.

Last fall, a cursory Thompson study of TV sports viewing patterns suggested that "the signs are not encouraging" as far as viewership of commercials goes. A similar study by BBDO Inc. concluded that buying time on TV sports broadcasts is "no longer a safe bet."

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