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Advertisers Drag Their Feet During Super Bowl Shuffle

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The price tag for a 30-second spot on Super Bowl XL is flat versus a year ago, when it was $2.4 million, sources said, making it the third time in five years that the cost to advertise during the big game has not increased. In addition, the Winter Olympics, as well as clients' interest in newer ad platforms like wireless and an unwillingness to undergo the creative scrutiny of Super Bowl ads, could divert some dollars from the football telecast, media buyers said last week.

Perennial advertiser Visa is believed to be one client forgoing the Super Bowl in favor of the Olympics, and McDonald's, an on-again-off-again Super Bowl advertiser that had one spot last year, is also taking a pass in 2006.

The Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, coming just five days after the Super Bowl, was partly behind the decision of both Visa and McDonald's to bow out of the game, sources said. Both are heavy Olympic advertisers and reason that their dollars will buy more exposure over the two-week Olympic run than 30 seconds during the game. One 30-second unit in the Olympics sells for about $700,000, roughly a third the price of the upcoming Super Bowl.

"Spots in the Olympics are much cheaper, so you can run several to make up for the audience you would get in one Super Bowl spot, and there is no scrutiny about the creative level of commercials during the Olympics," said one media agency executive who buys ads for clients in both events.

Just how seriously clients take their Super Bowl advertising can be seen in the controversy generated during last year's telecast on Fox, when GoDaddy.com ran an ad that drew viewer complaints for being too risque; Fox pulled that same spot later in the telecast. Fox insiders said Pepsi, which was in the same commercial pod as the first GoDaddy spot, also complained to the network about the ad, contending that it ruined the environment for its own spots.

Media buyers also said last week that the inevitable flurry of critiques and consumer polls following the game, such as the one in USA Today, is giving advertisers pause. "Some just don't like the scrutiny that comes with advertising in the Super Bowl," said one ad agency executive.

Sources said McDonald's was particularly miffed last year when its "Lincoln Fry" spot got spectacularly poor reviews among critics and consumers. The company had decided last year that, if its spot didn't make the top 10 in the USA Today poll, it would not be back in the '06 game, sources said. McDonald's had no comment.

Still, some brands don't want to miss the chance to reach the usual 100 million-plus viewers in the U.S. Ameriquest, CareerBuilder.com, FedEx and Paramount all confirmed they are returning.

Anheuser-Busch, the biggest advertiser in the game for years (it's had the exclusive beer category for 18 years), is returning again with its typical 10 units. But the beer maker will be re-evaluating the strategy going forward, said vp, global media and sports marketing Tony Ponturo. "We've had benefits doing long-term [Super Bowl] deals, but we'll be more cautious to some degree because you may tie up dollars that you want flexibility on going out years two and three" in a contract, he said.

Last month, the St. Louis-based company said it would begin to shift ad dollars from TV to cable and the Internet. "When you realize that 55 to 60 percent of TV time for viewers 21 to 34 years old is spent with cable, and they're spending six hours a week on the Internet," Ponturo said, "you better spread your dollars to the consumer." That said, he added that A-B "still believes strongly" in the Super Bowl as an ad vehicle.

The price of a 30-second spot has remained relatively flat in recent years because, sources say, marketers have become more reluctant to spend so much. In the 24 years that Nielsen Monitor-Plus has tracked prices in the game, the cost to advertise has increased all but six times, with five of those instances coming in the last 10 years. More recently, the price for the 2003 telecast was down 2 percent to $2.15 million per 30 seconds. In 2002, the price was unchanged at $2.2 million.

How far along ABC is in selling the game is uncertain. The network would not comment at all last week on its progress-—a possible sign that the game may not be selling as well as in past years. Normally at this time of year, at least 75 percent of the 58 in-game spots have been sold, and the network with the game confirms, if only on background, how many it has left. Last year at this time, Fox was 75 percent sold, and in 2003, CBS was roughly 80 percent sold.

There are some indications from the client side that Super Bowl time is not selling as quickly as in past years. Procter & Gamble confirmed that its brands would be on the sidelines for the second consecutive year, with the possible exception of recently acquired Gillette, for which plans have not been finalized, a company representative said. And perennial advertiser Pepsi is reducing its spot load by one or two, sources said.

General Motors will showcase its Cadillac brand once again this year, but a rep said the number of spots that GM will put in the game was not finalized (last year it had six in-game spots). But the automaker still sees value in the game. Said Steve Tihanyi, GM's director of entertainment and spots sponsorships, "Even people who don't care about the game want to be a part of it in some way because it's so big."