Super Bowl Buyers Get Creative Cold Feet

Insiders at CBS said that through last weekend there were only a “handful” of in-game Super Bowl spots available, but media buyers with knowledge of avails said that handful was about eight—up three or four from a few weeks earlier because a few advertisers decided not to honor their commitments.

That is not unusual, according to media buyers and sales executives from networks that have carried the Super Bowl in the past. “This has always been the way it works,” said Rino Scanzoni, national broadcast president at Mediaedge:cia, who has several clients in the game this year. “I don’t ever recall that if you wanted to get into the Super Bowl in the last week … that you couldn’t get in.”

CBS execs declined comment. But sales execs at ABC and Fox (which alternate airing the Super Bowl) and media buyers cited the intense scrutiny of the ads themselves—via next-day water-cooler buzz and published critiques, such as USA Today’s annual Super Bowl Ad Meter—as contributing to some advertisers’ reluctance to air ads during the game or decision to pull out of commitments.

Among many creative critiques, perhaps the best known is USA Today’s Ad Meter, a survey of several hundred viewers who watch the game under the supervision of USA Today officials and rate the Super Bowl in-game commercials. Results are published in the newspaper the next day.

Now in its 16th year, the survey’s media coverage has grown. That greater exposure has helped make some would-be advertisers gun shy about spending the $2 million-plus per spot (on top of production costs), only to have the bad reviews published in a national paper.

“The scrutiny … has driven some advertisers away,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ABC/ESPN Sports Customer Marketing and Sales. “The advertisers who finish in the top 30 or 40 percent of the USA Today Ad Meter come out OK, but if they finish below that, their company officers and shareholders begin to question whether the heavy expenditure was worth it.”

“It bothers me who these people are, how they are picked, and are they really qualified to judge the creativeness of advertising,” said Larry Novenstern, svp and director of national broadcast at Deutsch. “And they tend to pick the same types of commercials every year. Commercials with comedy do well. That’s why Budweiser and Pepsi always do well, and auto companies and movie companies do not traditionally do as well.”

John Hillkirk, editor of USA Today’s Money section, where the Ad Meter results run, defended the survey. “It is not supposed to be the experts’ view; it really is the view of the average person watching the game,” he said.

In the 2003 Super Bowl Ad Meter, Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) had six of the Top 10 spots. It is running multiple units in this year’s telecast.

Despite the white noise surrounding the Super Bowl, it remains the year’s marquee media buy. For example, most major movie studios have purchased at least one spot again this year, though most of their ads finished in the lower half of the meter last year.