Super Bowl XLIII: Fourth and Goal

It was perhaps the most bone-rattling hit of the 2008 NFL season, a devastating missile strike by free safety Ryan Clark that effectively clinched a seventh trip to the Super Bowl for the Pittsburgh Steelers. With 3:34 to go in the fourth quarter of the Jan. 18 AFC Championship game, Clark launched himself at Willis McGahee, propelling his right shoulder pad and the top of his helmet into the Baltimore Ravens running back’s face mask.

The force of the collision whiplashed McGahee’s head back on its stalk like a crash-test dummy’s and knocked both players out cold.

The hit, while especially vicious — on an HD set you could practically see the cerebrospinal fluid dribbling out of McGahee’s ear holes — was also perfectly legitimate under the NFL’s bylaws governing helmet-to-helmet contact. While it’s padded with arcana about shoelaces and ‘do-rags, the NFL Rule Book is fairly unambiguous on whether the helmet may be deployed as an agent of chaos. Yet it’s safe to say that most of the tongue-cluckers who called for Clark’s head later that night never bothered to consult the text. (It’s spelled out rather nicely in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8.)

All of which, in an admittedly circuitous fashion, brings us to NBC. Since before the playoffs began, the network has faced a relentless tide of uninformed speculation about how it’s been managing its inventory for Super Bowl XLIII, with commentators issuing dire bulletins about NBC’s inability to close on the last remaining 8-12 spots. And yet students of the game say NBC is hardly in dire straits, a reassuring assessment given the twin burdens of a monster recession and a record-high rate card.

“Last year Fox was sold out by Thanksgiving. Take that out of the equation and there’s nothing different about where NBC is today,” says Larry Novenstern, executive vp, director of national electronic media at Optimedia. “There are always a few spots available heading into the last week before the Super Bowl.”

As of late last week, NBC said it had yet to move 10 percent of its Super Bowl inventory, in line with media buyers’ estimates. “All things considered, they’re in pretty good shape,” one national TV buyer notes. “The economy is brutal, and just in terms of perception, there’s a risk of consumer backlash for anybody plunking down $3 million for 30 seconds of commercial time. How many paychecks is that?”

While buyers say NBC has held its ground on pricing, the much-cited rate isn’t exactly an absolute. Top-drawer clients like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo paid less than $2.4 million for each 30-second spot, as both bought in bulk and are longstanding NFL partners. “There’s this misperception that it was $3 million, take it or leave it,” says Seth Winter, senior vp of sales and marketing, NBC Sports & Olympics. “If you just wanted the Super Bowl, the cost was $3 million. But we’re looking for a larger investment across NBC Sports, so the approach was, give us a reason to modify the price.”

With 4.5 minutes worth of ad time, A-B remains the most loyal sponsor of the NFL’s marquee matchup, although there is some concern the brewer will scale back future Super Bowl commitments, now that the $52 billion InBev takeover is complete. “We haven’t seen any impact yet because they have multiyear deals, but once those expire the big question is, what happens when inBev gets involved in day-to-day operations?” Novenstern says. “They could tell Budweiser to pull out of the Super Bowl altogether, or cut back from 10 spots to two. If that happens, MillerCoors will buy in.”

Per terms of a series of earlier deals with NBC, CBS and Fox, A-B enjoys category exclusivity through Super Bowl XLVI (2012). The company has had a lock on the alcohol category since 1989.

In keeping with A-B’s traditional game plan, its spots will offer a mix of offbeat humor and equine iconography. As many as three spots will feature the Budweiser Clydesdales, according to A-B chief creative officer Bob Lachky. Produced by DDB, Chicago, the ads under consideration are designed to prop up the Budweiser and Bud Light flagships, although a spot for the malty offshoot Budweiser American Ale is also in the running for a late-game airing.

The increased emphasis on the big-hoofed mascots could have a palliative effect on Bud partisans anxious about the influence of the brand’s new Belgian overlords. “The best thing we can do is assure people that the things they love about our brands will remain intact,” Lachky explains. “The Clydesdales reinforce…our brand, tradition and heritage.”

NBC has balanced some early defections (General Motors, FedEx, Garmin, SalesGenie.com) with first-time investors such as Mars Inc.’s Pedigree, Teleflora and Denny’s. The restaurant chain will bow the first collaboration with its new creative agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, in a 30-second spot that Novenstern says will run in the third quarter of the game.

“They have some big news they want to get out there and the time was right to get the message out in one fell swoop,” Novenstern adds. “[Denny’s chief marketing officer] Mark Chmiel realizes the value of TV and the impact it has on their sales.”

Novenstern did not put a dollar figure on the Denny’s deal, although he emphasizes that his client did not shell out “anywhere near $3 million” for the :30. That a first-time Super Bowl client could trim a few bucks off the price tag suggests that NBC’s position has softened a bit as the pre-game clock winds down.

Winter confirms the average price is now in “the high twos,” which translates to $2.8 million or $2.9 million, or about 5 to 7 percent higher than Fox’s Super Bowl XLII base rate of $2.7 million. While sales got off to a fast start last summer, September’s global financial meltdown kicked the legs out from under the market. “We were 85 percent sold when we boarded the plane for Beijing,” Winter recalls. “When we came back, the world had suddenly changed.”

Sources say NBC is expected to clear half of its remaining spot load before using the final five avails to pay down some prime-time delivery shortfalls. Latecomers are likely to include a telecom player — Sprint is said to be sniffing around for a deal; moreover, the operator already has an exclusive “in” via its NFL Mobile Live application — while those who may be the beneficiary of audience deficiency units include Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

“There are always a few spots available the Friday before the game, so NBC isn’t in a bind,” says Gibbs Haljun, managing partner, director of national broadcast, Mediaedge:cia. “We should see things play out along the lines of the first-quarter scatter market, where you have people releasing money much closer to air-date. Anyone still looking to get in are holding their cards and waiting to see what happens.”

Come Feb. 1, those marketers that do find themselves with a seat on the 50-yard line will enjoy exposure on television’s last great reach vehicle. Last year’s game drew a record 97.5 million viewers, per Nielsen ratings data, and the 2007 contest ranked as the third most-watched Super Bowl, serving up some 93 million viewers. And while the advantages of reaching such a mass audience are manifest, with great exposure comes even greater scrutiny.

“If you’re advertising in the Super Bowl, you simply cannot afford a misstep,” says William Madway, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business. “There are too many people watching and too much attention being paid afterwards. The game is not a one-shot deal, but is instead the means with which these marketers kick off entire campaigns. If they get it wrong, they put future earnings at risk.”

The sheer scale of the event, coupled with the NFL’s draconian licensing policies — the league prohibits its broadcast partners from streaming game highlights on their Web sites — effectively takes a lot of digital media off the table. Once the final whistle is sounded next Sunday, any association a brand enjoys with the Super Bowl will be purely anecdotal.

“The Super Bowl is really just a one-off, and the opportunities to do the kind of integrations NBC offered during the Summer Olympics just aren’t there,” says Haljun. “It’s such a different model that there’s a limit to what clients can do on the digital side.”

If marketers’ long-tail efforts will have to begin away from the gridiron, NBC has picked up a great deal of business by appealing to the clients’ competitive instincts. “Budgeting is often a factor of competitive parity,” Madway says.

“This is one reason why the Super Bowl still does well even in a recession. Companies can take advantage of relative scarcity. If there’s a lack of voice, they can own the conversation by buying into this one game.”

By way of illustration, there is the beleaguered automotive category. On the home front, the Big Three are in no position to plop down a few million dollars for a single 30-second spot. (When you’re out there begging for alms, tin cup in hand, you can’t exactly justify that sort of promotional outlay.) With GM, Ford and Chrysler out of the picture, foreign automakers like Audi and Hyundai have jumped in with both feet.

Audi’s 60-second spot for its A6 sedan will run in the first commercial pod following the 6:18 p.m. EST kickoff, appearing after Budweiser’s opening salvo and a teaser for Sony Pictures’ Angels & Demons. The ad pokes fun at the stock Hollywood chase sequence, tailing actor Jason Statham as he tear-asses his way from the San Francisco of the Bullitt era to Dade County circa its Miami Vice heyday.

While Audi crashes its way through cinematic history, Hyundai is taking the highbrow route, enlisting cellist Yo-Yo Ma to perform a Bach composition over glam shots of the 2009 Genesis sedan. Created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the pair of 30-second spots will also be available at Hyundai.com, where consumers will be invited to edit the creative.

While classical music may not seem like an intuitive match for the ritualized violence of pro football, Haljun says that context isn’t always obvious: “You have to look at everything in terms of a price-value relationship. Can you use this to reach someone who you wouldn’t normally reach? If they’re in the right frame of mind and it’s relevant, then you may have something.”

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