COLUMN ONE : And There’s a Football Game, Too : The 49ers and Chargers will have to share the stage with the world’s most extravagant marketing war. At $1 million per ad, firms will try to score points and avoid costly fumbles.


The TV listings say San Diego versus San Francisco, but we know who the real Super Bowl contestants are. It’s Pepsi against Coke, Miller against Bud, No Fear against the world.

Some of America’s biggest brands are competing in what has become the world’s most extravagant marketing spectacle. During today’s game in Miami, an M&M; candy will come alive, beer bottles will duel, and, oh yes, a speeding bullet will pierce a padlock--again.

In the 28 years since the Green Bay Packers trounced the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl, pro football’s championship has evolved into a full-blown commercial showcase. Advertisers pay dearly to strut their stuff before record-breaking TV audiences. In 1994, 123.2 million Americans watched at least part of the show.

This year, advertisers are paying $1 million for 30 seconds, the highest price ever for television time, surpassing the $900,000 spots for last year’s Super Bowl. For that amount, advertisers could grab half a dozen 30-second prime-time slots, which typically go for $150,000 each.


The Super Bowl delivers more than an audience. It bathes products in the championship glow of the game itself, marketers say, signaling to viewers that the products are winners.

“We looked at a number of advertising options, but decided the environment of the Super Bowl is too good to pass up,” said Michele Hanna, advertising director of the National Pork Producers Council, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser. “We want to get out the message that pork is a star.”

Simply being there is not enough. Viewers who stick with the game from beginning to end will see more than 60 commercials for everything from T-shirts and hamburgers to luxury cars. Stardom for advertisers means rising above the glittery cast, delivering the performance people most remember.

Five days before the Super Bowl, Pepsi-Cola’s image-conscious marketing chieftains had not made final selections on which of its nine new commercials to run during its three minutes of air time during the game. Like a teen-ager fussing over what clothes to wear, Pepsi bosses debated which combination of ads best captures the humor and emotion of their “Nothing Else Is a Pepsi” campaign.


The big stage is not for the fainthearted. A bad commercial can turn a product into a national joke. (Remember Burger King’s much-ridiculed “Herb the Nerd” spot in 1986?) And if the game is dull, viewers may tune out, zapping a marketer’s investment with the flick of the remote.

So, companies go to great lengths--literally--to try to come up with a winning ad. American Isuzu Motors spent four days in Northern Africa shooting its 60-second spot. Frito-Lay flew former Democratic governors Mario Cuomo of New York and Ann Richards of Texas to Los Angeles two weeks ago to film a 30-second Doritos spot.

Consultants say it is not uncommon for advertisers to spend more than $1 million to produce a Super Bowl ad.

But it’s not just the big brands that have big ambitions. No Fear Inc. of Carlsbad is living up to its name with a 30-second spot it produced without any help from Madison Avenue. It is the first time the 6-year-old sports apparel manufacturer, hardly known outside the surf shop set, has aired a TV commercial.


Likening his company to its hometown Chargers, marketing vice president Jim Hancock said: “They are the underdogs and we are the underdogs of corporate advertising.”

The competition for viewers’ attention has become so pitched that the advertising has taken on a life of its own. In the past two weeks, Nike ran 15-second commercials during prime time--not to promote its athletic shoes, but its 90-second Super Bowl ad.

Advertisers ship preview videotapes of ads to media outlets, trying to rouse pregame attention. Some companies, including Master Lock and Frito-Lay, produced what amount to prepackaged feature stories on their commercials.

The fallout from these publicity efforts is that by game time, “we’re preconditioned for the commercials. We’re ready to watch them,” said Gerry Rubin, president and chief executive of the Santa Monica advertising agency Rubin Postaer & Associates, which created Super Bowl ads for Honda.


Viewers park in front of their TV sets, not tired from a day’s work, but keyed up to watch the action. Research shows that people are more than twice as likely to remember a Super Bowl ad than a commercial appearing at any other time, said John Melamed,vice president of Cramer-Krasselt, the Milwaukee-based agency for Master Lock--creator of the speeding bullet padlock test.

For many companies, the commercials are only the most visible part of a broad strategy dedicated to a single purpose: sell, sell, sell. Anheuser-Busch’s annual Bud Bowl has a wider audience than beer drinkers. The ads--which pit bottles of Bud against Bud Light in their own gridiron grudge match--play a big role in persuading retailers to give Bud brands key display space, which is critical to beer sales.

Anheuser-Busch offers retail outlets in-store displays and product discounts as part of the lavish $10-million-plus promotion. But, explains Bob Lachky, vice president of Budweiser brands: “One of the big hooks for us is the promise to pay off customers with a Super Bowl presentation.”

A change in Bud Bowl strategy this year gave the beer company a longer hook. The early rounds were played on TV in the first weeks of January, stretching to several weeks what had been a weekend event. Stores kept their displays up longer and, as a result, Bud and Bud Light sales inched up this January from a year ago.


The lineup of promotions before the game has another effect: They prime Americans to sit down and watch TV on Super Bowl Sunday. Besides Bud Bowl skirmishes, other deals include a 7-Eleven Super Bowl ticket contest, a Miller Brewing football giveaway and a Bank of America sweepstakes.

As game time approaches, viewers can catch the “Pizza Hut Pregame Report,” followed by the “Ford Explorer Countdown to Kickoff” and then the “Doritos Kickoff.” Mars Inc. dispatched a seven-foot peanut M&M; to the game and, as of Friday, was in discussions with ABC to get it on TV as part of the pregame coverage.

The thrills don’t stop when the Super Bowl ends. Publishers Clearing House will announce its $10-million winner on the air between the final whistle and the post-game show.

Pregame and postgame sponsors will pay $300,000 to $500,000 for 30-second spots. Added to revenue from game-time ads, ABC will gross about $75 million.


With such numbers, interest in the commercials might well exceed interest in this year’s game. Usually the football action is mediocre, at best; this time, the 49ers are an 18-point favorite over the Chargers. Although San Diego loyalists argue that anything can happen, the game is expected to be a snore.

Millions will tune in anyway because the Super Bowl transcends sports; it has become a cultural happening. Nearly 60% of today’s viewers will be attending parties, according to research from Pepsico. Another 15% will watch with family or friends.

The Super Bowl has become “an event, like the Academy Awards,” ad executive Rubin said. “It is not important what films are nominated. It is a two-hour showcase that has interest throughout.”

Some in the advertising industry go even further, arguing that the Super Bowl itself has become little more than a vehicle for the main event: the commercials.


“It must be noted that the actual football game is now about as important to Super Bowl weekend as the Nativity has become to Christmas,” the trade publication Advertising Age stated in a recent editorial. “Marketing hoopla has taken over.”

The hype about Super Bowl advertising is so overblown that it has inspired commercials lampooning it. Samuel Adams, a Boston brewery, is running radio ads mocking the Bud Bowl.

Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm, is running commercials set in an empty Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami pointing out how smart it is not to run ads during the Super Bowl.

“It’s the media event of the year . . . we’d love to be on the big game,” says a voice-over in the ad, which appears during news programs. “However, the people we want to get this message to will probably be there, and would miss our commercial.”


The Chicago ad agency that created the Arthur Andersen spot is in the Super Bowl, however, having created a commercial for McDonald’s. For some clients, said Leo Burnett Vice President Greg Taubeneck, “the big stage is very appropriate.”

Preparations for the game begin even before players report to summer camp. Honda’s U.S. subsidiary started writing its playbook in May. Determined to crack the minivan market, Honda lined up 60 seconds for its new Odyssey van, as well as time in the heavily watched playoffs.

Because Honda’s ads are running during the final two-minute warning, dealers have received “two-minute-warning kits,” complete with official’s cap, game program and whistle. Dealers also received videotaped pep talks from Honda’s national sales manager and Super Bowl game announcer Al Michaels.

On Monday, thousands of potential Odyssey buyers--many with growing families and aging Hondas--will receive direct mail pitches for the new van. A Honda ad in USA Today on Monday will invite readers to phone a toll-free Odyssey information line, a tactic that lets Honda exploit--and to some extent, assess--the impact of its two-week campaign.


For all the time and money invested, marketers say, it is difficult to pinpoint its impact on the bottom line.

Norwegian Cruise Line aired its first Super Bowl ad last year to herald a new, romantic image. In the week after the Super Bowl, cruise bookings soared 20%.

In the weeks after that, said marketing vice president Bruce W. Mainzer, it became harder to separate the forces driving sales: the Super Bowl, the new TV and print campaign launched during the game, or the desire of Easterners to escape a miserable winter.

Few ads have matched the impact of the 1984 Super Bowl commercial for the Apple Macintosh computer, the pioneering spot that ignited the marketing frenzy. The ad opened with the image of a Big Brother figure on a huge screen lecturing an auditorium filled with expressionless drones. An athletic young woman ended the spot by throwing a hammer at the screen, which exploded in a flash of light. An Orwellian voice-over intoned, “Why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”


The Macintosh, introduced two days later, sold out its inventory in six hours. It showed marketers the potential of the Super Bowl, and set off something of an annual competition among advertisers to “try hard to do something spectacular and unique” in the big game, said Lee Clow, creative director of Chiat/Day, the Los Angeles agency that created the ad.

Ah, but there is a downside. The annals of advertising lore are littered with Super Bowl flops. Burger King’s Herb the Nerd commercial in 1986--in which a geeky character promised to visit every Burger King outlet in the country--has been cited as one reason why J. Walter Thompson lost the chain’s advertising business.

Apple followed its landmark “1984" commercial with a disastrous 1985 ad introducing its Macintosh office line. It showed conformist executives blindly marching off a cliff. Chiat/Day lost the Apple account the next year.

In this year’s game, bombing out may be less of a danger than being tuned out. If the 49ers rout the Chargers as predicted, advertisers in the second half stand to lose a chunk of the audience.


Buying commercial time in the game is more art than science. Advertisers reserve their spots in early fall, long before it is possible to predict the contenders. Some, such as Lee Jeans manufacturer VF Industries, spread multiple spots over several quarters on the theory that most viewers will see at least one ad. Others, such as Honda, cluster spots to dominate a single commercial break.

In fall, Isuzu grabbed a spot in the third quarter--the best position available at the time, the company says--to showcase its Trooper. Are people at Isuzu worried?

“There is some concern right now--every advertiser in the third and fourth quarter has to be concerned,” said J. G. O’Connor, Isuzu senior vice president and marketing manager. “We could end up with a big blowout and people kind of turning to HBO for the second half.”

But the audience is so large that even if some parties end early, millions will still be watching. In 1990, when the 49ers beat the Denver Broncos, 55-10, just 39% of households were tuned in at halftime, down from the usual mid-40s ratings. But that is still almost double the 20% ratings commanded by this season’s No. 1 show, “Home Improvement.”


The risks and costs of Super Bowl advertising have become so high that some well-heeled companies are taking a pass. Two official NFL sponsors--Miller Brewing Co. and Coca-Cola--are not in the telecast. They instead sponsored Super Bowl-related programs that aired earlier this weekend.

Coke’s 25 hours on the Turner Broadcasting System, which concludes today, cost $500,000, the price of a 15-second Super Bowl spot. It will reach a fraction of Super Bowl viewers, but Coke says it is satisfied.

“Winter isn’t our peak sales season. It doesn’t make sense to support a big promotion,” said spokesman Ben Deutsch. However, he added, “it is very important to be associated with the Super Bowl.”

So, Coke will be highly visible to people at the game. It has sponsored a weekend festival near the stadium and has distributed free Cokes to guests at major hotels.


Coke’s absence from the TV screen peeves Pepsico, which purchased three minutes of commercial time and prepared an ad taking a shot at Coke.

“We want to go head to head with them because when we do, they lose,” said Brian Swette, Pepsi executive vice president. “They are an official NFL sponsor, and when the big event comes along, they don’t even show up.”