Robert Gebbia didn't intend to slay a Super Bowl ad.
But he did.
The day after last year's Super Bowl, Gebbia arrived at work to find a flood of phone messages and e-mails complaining about a General Motors gm ad with a suicidal robot. As executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, he figured he'd better go online and check it out.
He didn't like what he saw. He was insulted by the ad — featuring a robot that has a nightmare about losing its assembly-line job — because he thought it turned suicide into a comic punch line.
The next day, Gebbia sent a sharply worded letter to GM demanding that the ad be yanked. A day later, he e-mailed a press release to newspapers. Within three days, GM altered the ending and dropped the original ad from TV and its website.
Talk about power. Gebbia's tiny organization has an ad budget of zero, a workforce of 31 and an annual budget of $9 million. GM has a $3.3 billion U.S. ad budget, a worldwide workforce of 280,000 and net sales in 2006 of $207 billion.
Yet, GM cried uncle. "We took their concerns to heart," says Ryndee Carney, a GM spokeswoman, who later heard from other mental health interest groups. "I can guarantee you, there won't be any whiff of suicide in this year's ad."
This is the Brave New World of Super Bowl advertising. As if airing a superexpensive Super Bowl spot isn't fraught with enough risks, marketers face a new hazard that gained momentum last year: having a message attacked — or even hijacked — by an advocacy group.
"Advocacy groups will be coming out of the woodwork this year," predicts Howard Rubenstein, the high-profile New York publicist. "Advertisers who go over the edge will be pushed over the cliff."
Clearly, special-interest organizations have motive to try to latch on to the megaphone that Super Bowl advertisers provide. "The Super Bowl has become so important that it permeates the culture," says Kathryn Montgomery, who directs the Project on Youth, Media and Democracy at American University. "That's why advertisers — and advocacy groups — love it."
Advocacy groups insist, however, that they simply want to get the ads removed — not to garner publicity for their causes.
Increasingly, the target isn't so much the 90 million U.S. game viewers, but the millions more who will chat online for days about all aspects of the game — and repeatedly watch the ads on many sites, including usatoday.com.
"There is no delete key in cyberspace," says Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO of Kaplan Thaler Group ad agency. "If you do something in bad taste, all it takes is one guy who is insulted to create a big ruckus."
GM wasn't the only giant advertiser under attack after last year's Super Bowl. Protests from several gay-advocacy groups forced Mars' Masterfoods USA to yank and apologize for its Snickers commercial that showed two men who accidentally kiss — then react by pulling out their chest hair.
GM and Masterfoods say that until they heard from the interest groups, they had no clue that these ads would be controversial. Having to cut off post-game buzz by killing an ad is a major blow.
Major advertisers in this year's game now must ask: Could they be next?
Pepsi could take flak for building its Super Bowl ad around Justin Timberlake, the guy who yanked off a portion of singer Janet Jackson's bra during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The spot doesn't allude to that incident. It shows Timberlake escaping a series of disasters caused by a pretty girl sitting poolside sipping her Pepsi.
"Word that he's in the ad has gotten quite a buzz, probably because of his connection to that past Super Bowl," says Pepsi pep spokeswoman Rebecca Madeira. "Bring it on," says Madeira, who notes this ad was made for a family audience.
Other marketers could take some grief, too. What about lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret, which is resurfacing with Super Bowl sizzle after a nine-year absence? Or sexy Carmen Electra showing up in a Hershey's hsy spot? Or Anheuser-Busch, bud whose Super Bowl spots have rankled feminist and taste sensibilities?
NOW poised for attack
It's no accident that the National Organization for Women says it plans to relaunch its national Super Bowl Ad Watch that it last oversaw in 2003. Hundreds of NOW chapters will be asked to rate the Super Bowl ads most demeaning to women. The results will be tabulated and appear on NOW's website.
"If there's an offensive ad, we'll gang up on the advertiser," says Kim Gandy, NOW's president.
Other special-interest groups are on alert. "There are war rooms at advocacy organizations that are looking into this stuff right now," says Katie Paine, a public relations consultant. "That's what PR people do. They look at what worked last time and try to make it work again."
Ad executives trace this trend to Jackson's 2004 "wardrobe malfunction," which had nothing to do with ads. "That made everyone more sensitive to anything having to do with the Super Bowl," says Jeff Goodby, co-founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which has created about 20 Super Bowl spots through the years, including some this year for Anheuser-Busch and Hyundai. "There's a certain level of anxiety about upsetting special-interest groups."
That said, his agency has not been "warned" by Anheuser-Busch "to mind our P's and Q's," he says.
Alex Bogusky, one of advertising's most influential creative directors, predicts that advocacy groups will be out in force after the game. "Let's put it this way: It's unlikely that nothing will touch off a nerve," says Bogusky, who on Monday was named co-chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
Goal is to include, not exclude
With such a mass audience watching, the goal for most Super Bowl advertisers is the opposite.
"The aim of Super Bowl advertising is to entertain, not offend," says Kaplan Thaler. "You want to include — not exclude — people."
Which is precisely where Snickers appeared to make a wrong turn.
Its much-ballyhooed Super Bowl ad starred two burly auto mechanics who accidentally smooch while munching on opposite ends of a Snickers bar. Their reaction: to scream and display their manliness by pulling their chest hair.
It was consumers who picked that ending from three that Mars promoted online before the game.
Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, a gay-advocacy group, didn't watch the Super Bowl. But when he arrived at his Washington, D.C., office on Monday, he heard about the ad from angry colleagues and members.
Solmonese went to the Mars website and watched the ad, as well as the two alternative endings. The alternative endings, more slapstick and violent than the one that aired, upset him the most.
That day, the group issued a press release asking Mars to suppress the campaign. Mars immediately killed the ad and removed it from the website.
"We complained in the morning, and by afternoon, it was gone," says Solmonese. Two months later, Mars representatives met with the group.
Mars says it never intended to offend anyone. "We responded responsibly and quickly," says spokeswoman Alice Nathanson. "Our handling of the situation reflected the core values of Mars."
Didn't see that coming
Then, there's the really unpredictable.
More than two weeks before last year's Super Bowl, Nationwide released its Super Bowl commercial starring Britney Spears' ex, Kevin Federline. The ad features Federline as a french-fry cook at a fast-food joint who dreams of becoming a rap star.
Several days later, the National Restaurant Association trade group sent an angry letter to Nationwide's CEO — and a press release to the media — decrying the ad as denigrating to its members.
"We had a number of members raise concerns about how the industry was being portrayed," says Sue Hensley, NRA spokeswoman.
Federline quickly apologized, but executives at Nationwide were taken aback by the letter. "The last thing on our mind was causing controversy," says Steven Schreibman, vice president of advertising. "If we made fun of anything, it was Federline."
The public seemed to agree, to Nationwide's benefit. The ad gained major media attention only after the trade group's protest, according to a study done by TNS Media Intelligence.
"For Nationwide, the controversy was extremely beneficial," says Jim Nail, chief strategy officer at Cymfony, a division of TNS Media.
The NRA didn't make out so well, he says. "Consumers felt the trade group was being hypersensitive."
Nationwide received more free publicity from the ad than just about any Super Bowl ad ever.
The commercial got $24 million in unpaid media exposure, estimates Schreibman. That's just under 10 times more than what Nationwide paid to air the spot in the game.
Back at the offices of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Gebbia concedes the group gained far more media attention for the stink it made about GM's "Robot" ad than for anything else it's done in his 10 years there.
To be specific: 39.1 million print "impressions" and 13.4 million TV broadcast "impressions." Those are the total numbers of readers or viewers who might have seen a story about the group. And that excludes radio and Internet exposure.
Although this raised his group's profile, Gebbia says, it hasn't increased membership or brought a spurt in donations.
On Sunday, Gebbia plans to watch the Super Bowl with his wife and kids. He says that he won't be watching the ads with a critical eye.
Still, he'll be watching.