Secret fridge
What is so special about this secret fridge? Anheuser-Busch marketing executives hope you will tune in Sunday to find out.
By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
updated 2/3/2006 2:59:12 PM ET 2006-02-03T19:59:12

It is the dirty little secret of the Super Bowl that after two weeks of puffed-up media coverage, the game itself is often a big letdown.

Recent years have seen some close games, but there have been plenty of one-sided clunkers like Tampa Bay’s 48-21 shellacking of Oakland in 2003.

Leave it to Madison Avenue to keep us glued to the screen until the final gun. In a game considered the premier showcase for national television advertising, most marketers carefully guard a secret twist in their commercials, betting that people will keep watching even if the on-field action is less than scintillating.

Strategies vary for the so-called “reveal,” which can be the difference between a brand-boosting hit commercial and a flop ruthlessly dissected by millions of Monday morning creative directors.

Most of the two dozen advertisers who have bought time in the game — at a record $2.5 million for a standard 30-second slot — have offered at least a tease of their plans, and sometimes much more.

Toyota, for example, which has garnered pre-game publicity for a “bilingual” ad promoting its forthcoming hybrid Camry, already has posted the entire spot on its Web site, so no surprise there.

Other advertisers have gone to the opposite extreme and are tightly guarding the creative content of their commercials, keeping them under wraps like the blueprints to some new weapon of mass destruction about to be unleashed on the competition.

Ameriquest, for example, the mortgage company that scored a hit last year with its funny commercials about misunderstandings in a kitchen and a minimart, confirmed it will be back with two spots this year but has refused to offer any details.

Most advertisers fall somewhere in the middle, releasing snippets of commercials to benefit from the enormous “free media” they get in the run-up to the Super Bowl but holding back enough to make sure viewers pay attention — and perhaps get a jolt.

“There really is an art to trying to maximize your return on investment for the Super Bowl,” said Fran Kelly, president of Arnold Worldwide, an ad agency. “The dilemma Super Bowl advertisers have is on the one hand you want to maximize the buzz, so revealing a little bit of the spot can help you do that. But it’s a little but like getting reviewed by movie critics — if people don’t like it, it can drag you down.”

Sunday’s game decides far more than the National Football League championship. It is the Super Bowl of advertising, too, and by Monday morning everyone is a critic. Dozens of Web sites, including this one, will offer viewers a chance to watch the ads again and vote on their favorites.

The pressure on creative directors is intense, said Steven Schreibman, vice president of advertising for Nationwide Insurance, which ran a regional Super Bowl last year and is going national this year with an ad featuring Fabio, the male supermodel famous from the covers of countless torn-bodice romance novels.

“It’s like a Broadway opening,” he said. “Last year I watched (the game) in my bathrobe, eating Cheetos at home alone with my cat. Once they ran the ad I was able to breathe, and then I just went to bed. I just want everything to go well.”

Nationwide considered trying to keep the “twist” of its Fabio ad secret, but in the end decided to allow news outlets to run the entire 30-second spot in advance, figuring people would like the ad and contribute to a positive buzz. (Hint: It’s not really a shampoo commercial.)

While Schreibman said he hopes to score well in postgame surveys, not everyone is concerned with what the critics say, industry executives say. Some ads might not be huge crowd-pleasers, but they still get the message across to the average 90 million people who are expected to be tuned in at any one time.

Gillette, for example, is running ads for its new Fusion shaving system that will feature lots of computer animation and scenes of the Mojave Desert but do not appear destined to be a major topic of water-cooler conversation. Still, by Monday most of the nation’s male shaving population probably will be aware of a new razor with not three, not four, but five blades.

Veteran Super Bowl marketers like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo have a bit more riding on the game. Anheuser-Busch is the game’s top sponsor with five minutes of commercial airtime worth $25 million, while Pepsi has two minutes. With that kind of investment, a relatively young target audience and good-time products, the beverage marketers will be expected to land an ad or two in Monday morning top 10 lists.

Both companies have carefully walked the line of the “reveal,” offering enough snippets of their advertising this week to ensure plenty of coverage on television news shows but not so much as to give away the game.

So even if the Seahawks end up blowing out the Steelers in the first half, millions will stay tuned to find out what happens to Budweiser’s “secret fridge,” or to see Jackie Chan duke it out with a can of Diet Pepsi.

“There is very little falloff even if it’s a blowout,” said Ed Erhardt, president of sales for ESPN/ABC Sports.

Even in 2003, when the outcome was determined early on, 42 percent of U.S. households had the game on at the final gun, compared with about 40 percent in the first half, according to Nielsen Media Research. In 1999, when Denver crushed Atlanta 34-19, the rating at game’s end was still a respectable 38.1, down just a few points from a peak of 41.5 earlier in the game,

“I think the game, and the even the day, holds up pretty well, and I think that speaks to the advertising,” Erhardt said. “”Super Bowl night is the only television event in which for many of the people who watch it, the ads are why they come.”

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