Creative Focus: Playing For The Ring

For agencies and clients, Super Bowl Sunday is judgment day.
With the Super Bowl less than a week away, the advertising community is anticipating the big game perhaps as much as the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers. The usual frenetic pace of meeting deadlines has taken on a new significance. Despite the many laurels the industry bestows on itself-Lions, Pencils and Clios-the Super Bowl represents the grandest prize of all, the opportunity for a public pat on the back. It’s the one day when both clients and agencies can spike the ball in the end zone-and the pressure to look good is all-consuming.
Michael Patti, vice chairman, executive creative director of BBDO, admits, for him, Super Bowl jitters begin long before the arrival of Super Sunday. “When the football season starts [in September],” he says, “I start taking antacids.”
An agency that seems to have as much riding on the game as the athletes themselves, BBDO, New York, produces high-profile Super Bowl commercials for many of its top clients, such as Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Visa. Despite the yearly exercise, the ads are fine-tuned right up till game time, and this year is no exception. “We’re in post production with five Pepsi spots and we’re still shooting three,” he says.
Patti keeps the creative for Pepsi under wraps, revealing only that “we’re going a little more youth-oriented, but the Pepsi trademarks, humor and humanity, will remain. The commercials always strive for huge entertainment.”
With viewership of Super Bowl XXXII projected at 140 million people and 30 seconds of air time priced at $1.3 million ($1.2 million last year), the game has become a media event like no other. It represents not only the one time of year when football fanatics and the sports-challenged can commingle in relative peace, but when the advertising industry, with an estimated 58 spots broadcast during the game, can revel in its own glory.
“[This day] is the Super Bowl of advertising,” says Bob Scarpelli, senior vice president and chief creative officer at DDB Needham, Chicago, which has produced such memorable Super Bowl moments as football-playing Clydesdales for Anheuser-Busch and a gravity defying Jason Alexander for Frito-Lay’s Rold Gold pretzels. “The Super Bowl has evolved to the point where people watch the ads more than the game. Advertising’s become the game within the game. It’s the one event of the year where people are really watching the commercials. They’ve become part of the party.”
Despite the escalating price-and hype-surrounding the commercials, for many clients the Super Bowl has remained the preeminent place to showcase creative. Among the advertisers expected to be on the game this year: Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and newcomers Tommy Hilfiger (launching his sports apparel line), Oracle and Royal Caribbean Cruises. But has the quality of the work been affected?
Last year’s Super Bowl received a tepid industry response. The general consensus: Both the game and the commercials were lackluster. For an event many say represents “the best of the best,” 1997’s showing betrayed how self-conscious the industry has become, especially around the time of the Super Bowl. Attempting to razzle and dazzle, many spots simply fizzled.
“My memory of last year’s [Super Bowl] was that I didn’t think too much of the spots,” says Ted Bell, vice chairman, worldwide creative director of Young & Rubicam, New York. “It’s become advertising’s in-joke, all these agency guys trying to outdo each other. It’s about who can have the coolest commercial. It’s self-indulgence on the part of the ad industry.”
Even the ads themselves have become ironic commentaries on the Super Bowl hype. Last year, Wieden & Kennedy produced a Nike commercial in which Li’l Penny hosts a star-studded Super Bowl party with jokes that predominately relied on (what else?) storylines from previous Li’l Penny-Nike spots and advertising at large. The security-conscious Master Lock commercials of Super Bowls past came up during Nike’s party ad. Pepsi also spoofed Master Lock’s annual January splurge, with a hilarious performance by Robert Stack giving tips on theft-proofing a Pepsi can. In both spots, the punch lines relied not on the game-but on the game’s advertising.
The intensifying drama surrounding each new Super Bowl worries both agencies and clients. “As a marketer and advertiser, I find the hype distracting and frustrating,” says Chris Zimmerman, director of advertising for Nike in the U.S. “At times, for agencies and advertisers, the Super Bowl is more of an event about the USA Today poll [which rates consumers’ Super Bowl ad favorites the day after the game]. The external focus, quite honestly, is a distraction.”
Is it enough of a distraction to keep Nike out of the game? Not this year, but Zimmerman admits the return may someday not be worth the investment. “For us, it’s not a must,” he says. “Granted, we’ve been involved for the last 10 years, but there may come a time when either the costs have gotten out of line or we feel the focus and the ad hype around the event is overshadowing the value that we are getting.” This year, Nike will push its apparel line with new work from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.
In a business teeming with what at times appear to be paper-thin agency-client relationships, the Super Bowl, at its best, offers both partners the opportunity to be proud. At its worst, Super Sunday intensifies uncertainties and doubts. “It’s gotten very hard for clients to imagine topping their Super Bowl commercials from last year. It’s a big race,” says Jeff Goodby, co-creative director of Goodby, Silverstein, whose clients include Anheuser-Busch, Nike and Porsche. “It’s always hectic. You’re asked to think of new ideas at the last minute; you are getting feedback on things as you produce them, changing things right before it goes on air.”
For some, the importance of being on the Super Bowl is so great, objective judgment is often impaired. “Many clients want to be on the Super Bowl just to be on the Super Bowl,” says Scarpelli, noting that a rumor is circulating in agency halls this year about a Chicago insurance company wanting to advertise during the game, a firm that is unlikely to gain much from the $1.3 million investment for media time. “The CEO wants his name on the Super Bowl,” he says. “It’s almost like bragging rights.”
With all the excitement about making a splash on the game, business strategies can often fall by the wayside. “It’s hard to keep your eye on the ball,” adds Goodby, “why you are on and what you’re trying to do.”
Case in point: Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, produced a Super Bowl commercial for Holiday Inn last year that certainly captured attention, but not the type expected. The spot, featuring a transsexual turning heads at a class reunion, was broadcast only once because of its controversial nature. Wholesome business travelers couldn’t cope with the risque metaphor for the chain’s renovations, and the hotel later aired an ad with a more straightforward rebuilding theme.
“There is a lot of pressure created by the Super Bowl,” says Chuck Bennett, associate creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., whose Nissan spot, featuring a joyriding dog, appeared last year. “[But] you should feel that kind of pressure every day.”
BBDO’s Patti and his Pepsi creative team will certainly feel the heat this weekend. “I sit there and I don’t see one minute of the game,” admits Patti. “I feel like I’m reading a legal brief or a death warrant. The day of the game is very nerve-racking.”