Advocacy groups keep advertisers on their toes

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."

Who's next?

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?

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