Industry's health, big money at stake


January 27, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- When America tunes in to the Super Bowl on Sunday, advertising executives will be watching as well -- for the commercials rather than the grunt-a-minute game.

The football fest is also Madison Avenue's championship, with one multimillion-dollar creation trying to outdo the next. An audience 100 million strong makes the Super Bowl television's premier advertising event, one that can bring fame to Spuds McKenzie as well as to Broadway Joe Namath.

Not only are reputations on the line, but the ads also are studied as a measure of the health of the $130 billion industry, which has suffered during the nationwide economic slump.

"It is a barometer of where the industry is," said Greg Farrell, editor of Adweek, a trade publication. "What we're seeing is that while there is no gold rush in sight, it's turning out significantly better than last year."

For last year's Super Bowl, CBS had trouble selling its $850,000 30-second spots, because of a poor economy and a glut of sporting events, such as the Olympics. The spots were peddled at bargain prices shortly before show time, with companies such as General Motors picking up sweet deals.

This year, with the economy slowly improving, NBC, which is broadcasting the Super Bowl, has reported a sellout of all spots -- for the full price of $850,000. NBC also was able to rebuff some advertisers' demands for exclusivity in their field during the telecast. Pepsi, for example, will have to compete with Seven-Up for the viewers' throats and minds.

Although no one believes that NBC's mild success in selling Super Bowl ads means a return to advertising's 1980s heyday, it does promise some stability. The industry hit bottom in 1991, when $126 billion in ads was sold, a 4 percent decline over the previous year.

The preliminary estimate for 1992 shows $132 billion spent on advertising, a 4.8 percent increase. Spending on network television advertising, including for the Super Bowl, was up nearly 8 percent, according to Robert Cohen, advertising economist for the Madison Avenue agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide.

"Last year was more solid than 1991, and the Super Bowl seems to be showing a further strengthening," he said.

The Super Bowl's shining reputation among advertisers is also heartening to the networks. As audiences grow more fragmented, pro football's championship is the only true mass-advertising vehicle left. Although viewership has declined for the Academy Awards and the World Series, the Super Bowl is still seen in about 40 percent of the U.S. homes with televisions.

"It's still the premier event on television," said Steve Auerbach, who heads national advertising for DeWitt Media.

The Super Bowl is too expensive for some advertisers, said John Melamed, vice president of Milwaukee-based Cramer-Krasselt, an agency that regularly handles Super Bowl spots. Still, he added, "It's good if you've got something new that you want to establish overnight."

Super Bowl advertising is perfect for launching a product or an ad campaign, said David Ropes, vice president of advertising for Reebok shoes. This is especially true during poor economic times, when companies have to concentrate more on selling products.

This year's ads seem equally divided between those pushing specific products, such as Pepsi's new clear cola drink, and those that focus on corporate image-making.

Reebok, for example, hopes to remake its image, Mr. Ropes said. Reebok has had a female fitness image, but the company will use pictures of tough sports competitors in hopes that viewers will identify "performance" with Reebok sports shoes.

Subaru is launching a car and trying to broaden its appeal, said Mark Dunn, Subaru's national advertising manager.

"When people thought of buying a car, they'd think of Ford or Honda, but our name didn't pop immediately to mind," he said. "We hope to change that."

Subaru decided early to use the Super Bowl and snapped up 90 seconds of time divided into six 15-second segments. By sprinkling these throughout the first three quarters of the game, Mr. Dunn said, the company hopes to hit people often with the new car and new image.

A game created to marketers' specifications only 27 years ago, DTC the Super Bowl has been hyped into an event that many younger people view as a national holiday, said Everette Dennis, director of Columbia University's Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.

"The Super Bowl has achieved a status that is very close to Christmas, and, in terms of people's behavior, more significant than July the Fourth," he said. "It's really become part of our commercial culture."

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