Super Bowl: Sizing Up the Competition

Advertisers shelled out nearly $3 million for 30 seconds of attention on this year’s Super Bowl, to be broadcast Feb. 7 on CBS. The game is the only significant TV showcase for commercials left in today’s media-fractured environment, and advertisers are frantically putting the final touches on their plays for the day.

Many are jockeying for position by kicking up as much pre-game buzz as possible. Many are relying heavily on social-media efforts to crank up early anticipation for their creative. Coca-Cola, for instance, is using Facebook to offer sneak peeks of its ads and dangling the chance to watch the full cuts hours before the broadcast as part of the incentive (along with a charitable element).

Nearly 100 million viewers tuned in to the game last year, and similar numbers are expected this year, so the fight for viewer attention will be fierce. Here, we take an early look at how the category competition is shaping up.

Miller is again trying to muscle into Anheuser-Busch’s national category exclusivity by interrupting the Bud fest-five minutes of spots, mostly for Bud Light-with local spot buys for Miller High Life featuring the no-nonsense delivery guy who takes swipes at the beer giant while visiting small businesses around the country. Viewers will appreciate the David vs. Goliath strategy from Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, but winning over beer drinkers will probably take more than amusing attacks on the unnamed beer giant’s brands that “prance out those fancy-pants commercials.” A-B, a perennial favorite, is rolling out ads that will most likely play better to the average male Super Bowl viewer. Bud Light’s lineup from St. Louis agency Cannonball includes spots with guys who attend a women’s book club only for the beer, a guy who builds a house out of Bud Light cans (shown), and guys whose voices turn electronically musical to get the party started. The spot likely to have the broadest appeal is a spoof on Lost, a smart pop culture tie-in that plays to the highly anticipated Feb. 2 return of ABC’s hit show. On Bud Light’s island, the survivors of a plane crash ignore the discovery of the plane’s radio system to celebrate a washed-up beverage cart filled with bottles of the beer.

The auto category has a handful of players racing for attention this year. Chrysler, the only American car brand advertising in the game, ignited an outcry for its multimillion-dollar outlay, but so far the teasers for the Dodge Charger, the first from new agency Wieden + Kennedy, are relatively quiet, usually not a good move for raucous party viewing. But the Portland, Ore., shop has produced a 60-second spot that must be more than a glam shot of a parked car, and its past history with brands like Nike shows it knows how to command Super Bowl attention. Still, it looks like the biggest battle for consumer appeal will be between Audi, with a reworking of a popular Cheap Trick song (“Dream Police” becomes “Green Police”), and Volkswagen, which is introducing the first work from its new agency, Deutsch/LA. VW will showcase its range of models with a spot based on the kids’ game Punch Buggy and includes an appearance by comedian Tracy Morgan and a surprise friend. But VW will have a tough time overtaking Audi’s pitch. The latter’s ad, comically picturing a world that persecutes environmental abusers, is drumming up early interest with Web ads crafted to look like PSAs from (who else?) the “Green Police.” And a memorable rock ‘n’ roll track goes a long way toward currying favor, especially in this game. Venables, Bell in San Francisco handles Audi.

For the fourth year in a row, Doritos placed its pricey three-spot buy in the hands of the brand’s fans. Some 4,000 of them entered its Crash the Super Bowl contest this year for a chance to earn big money and all the other accolades that come with getting their work into the biggest TV event of the year. Three out of six finalists will air, chosen by online voting. After nailing the coveted No. 1 spot in the USA Today Ad Meter last year, for an ad showing a snow-globe hit to the crotch, Doritos raised the stakes, challenging consumers to take the top three spots-and promising a total bounty of $5 million for the feat. The six finalists feature a load of violent slapstick, with some macabre humor thrown in. Diamond Foods, meanwhile, is double-teaming its Emerald Nuts and Pop Secret brands in one outrageous-looking spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. This is Pop Secret’s first time on the game, but Emerald’s track record leans toward the oddball. Its previous ad characters include “Egyptian navigators,” druids and a wall-scaling Robert Goulet, to name just a few. This year, we’ll see “the world’s most flamboyant dolphin trainer,” the company says. Super Bowl audiences, however, are more likely to favor the Doritos approach.

CareerBuilder is back this year with a new consumer-generated game plan (shown). A longtime Super Bowl advertiser, the company most recently gave viewers comical tips about when it’s time to get a new job. For its sixth appearance, the company has turned to the public for its ads. It chose three finalists from among 1,000 entries. “It was just about finding an idea that told the story of unfortunate work situations with our brand character and sense of humor,” says Cynthia McIntyre, CareerBuilder’s senior director of advertising. Its homegrown concept, however, will go up against expert comedic (and Super Bowl) veteran BBDO New York and its new spot for Last year, CareerBuilder’s ad fared better than Monster’s (which used a mounted moose to show work misery) in day-after surveys. But the previews on the CareerBuilder site rely on well-worn scenarios to cultivate laughs and produce a weak chuckle at best. Monster’s spot, however, stars a violin-playing beaver, and nothing grabs consumers more in this venue than well-crafted, animal-filled comedy.

Online vacation rental marketplace HomeAway and mobile pay-TV company FLO TV are hardly household names. Smart star casting (Alec Baldwin as an alien invading traditional TV  territory) worked well for Hulu’s Super Bowl debut last year, but it remains to be seen if famous faces can work the same wonders for these newcomers. (Other debut players include TruTV, Electronic Arts and Boost Mobile.) HomeAway is running a spot in which Chevy Chase reprises his role as the hapless leader of the Griswold family in the comedy classic National Lampoon’s Vacation. FLO TV turned to mega musicians for one of its three slots. The spot will feature a remix of “My Generation” from halftime performers The Who and Black Eyed Peas frontman, and should score some points with music fans. Still, even a Who classic might not be enough to derail a comeback by the Griswolds and their Wagon Queen Family Truckster, courtesy of Publicis in the West in Seattle. Beverly D’Angelo is also along for the ride, which sees them pulled over in New Jersey.

Which Super Bowl celebrity endorsements will prove more popular-the Simpsons for Coca-Cola or Kiss for Dr Pepper Cherry? For one of its two in-game ads, Coke and Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., enlisted the cast of Fox’s 20-year-old super series to tell another animated “Open Happiness” tale that turns dreary dramas into communal celebrations. In the 60-second spot, Springfield’s town millionaire Mr. Burns has lost everything and looks on the bright side of things only when his friends and neighbors rally around him in support and with a Coke. Dr Pepper has the legendary Gene Simmons and the band rocking for the cherry-flavored soda’s game-day debut. The 30-second commercial, from Deutsch/LA, will treat viewers to a small surprise that will likely bring laughs, but may only fully be appreciated by a fraction  of the broad audience. Still, Gene’s got flashy, enduring style and rock anthems. Both are powerful star properties that have endured the test of time. Kiss has been around a lot longer than The Simpsons, but the show has steadily impressed, while the band has had spurts of popularity. In the final showdown, Coke’s minute-long Simpsons story will probably get more people smiling than Kiss will get rockers pumping devil horns.