Jan. 29, 2009— -- Millions of Americans now out of work are cutting back on their spending. But that isn't stopping companies from paying up to $100,000 a second -- yes $100,000 a second -- to advertise during Sunday's Super Bowl.
Anheuser-Busch will be back in force along with Pepsi, H&R Block and the most of the usual suspects in the advertising industry's annual exercise in extravagance.
But not everybody will be along for the party. Victoria's Secret, General Motors and FedEx -- all struggling in this recession -- pulled their ads from the big game.
And, depending on who you ask, other advertisers are clearly changing the tone of their commercials to better reflect the mood of the nation.
Barbara Lippert, ad critic for Adweek, said to expect spots this year that are "more cute than edgy."
"The tone issue is a problem for advertisers because on the one hand people want a bastion of relief and they want to be entertained and they want to sit back and relax. And at the other hand, advertisers don't want to seem insensitive," Lippert said. "I think they are all pretty much going to side on the side of funny animals and babies."
Entering the big game for the first time this year is dog food maker Pedigree. The company's lighthearted ad features a rhinoceros, ostrich, warthog and a bull and encourages people to adopt a dog.
Sunday's match-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals is expected to attract nearly 100 million viewers. (Remember, there are only about 300 million people in the country.)
NBC is broadcasting the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. Originally, the network was charging advertisers a premium: $3 million for a 30-second spot, about $300,000 more than last year's prices. More than 80 percent of the ad time was sold by mid-September.
But then the economy sank even further and NBC had to discount some time slots. On Wednesday, the network still had two spots for sale.
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Dick Ebersol, chairman, NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, told reporters on a conference call that all of the ads sold "at prices above $2.4 million, a large number of them as high as $3 million."
"Considering the state of the economy in the United States, we couldn't be any more thrilled with where we are," Ebersol said.
In recent years, online job-hunting sites such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com have emerged as big Super Bowl advertisers. With layoffs coming in virtually ever corner of the economy and country, don't expect them to disappear.
"I think now more than ever people are interested in watching ads for employment companies," Lippert said. "I think they just need to make a great ad."
CareerBuilder this year gives viewers the telltale signs of when it may be time to search for a new job. They include the obvious --- you hate going to work and cry constantly -- and some not such obvious ones: "you daydream of punching small animals."
Bob Garfield, a columnist with Advertising Age, said talk about advertisers changing tone is "a mystery to me."
"People have assumed, I guess, that because we are in an economic crisis, that the advertisers would be risk averse. From what I've seen so far, I see no evidence of that," Garfield said. "It's not true. It's the same assortment as we see every year, recession or no recession."
Garfield has been reviewing ads for 23 years now. His summary from the ads this year he has already seen: "The jokes are worse. They're not as funny, but I don't think funny is cost-sensitive."
Super Bowl Commercials in 3-D
There will still be plenty of lavish ads and plenty of duds.
"There will be several commercials that people will genuinely be talking about at the water cooler or at the unemployment office on Monday. And there will be a lot of disappointments," Garfield said. "I continue, year after year, to be amazed how much time and money can be spent in pursuit of an extravagant, terrible commercial, this year being no exception."
Two companies are even pushing new 3-D ads that will pop right out of your TV.
An ad for Pepsi's Sobe Lifewater will feature dancing lizards, and DreamWorks Animation offers a 3-D promotion for its upcoming "Monsters vs. Aliens" movie.
Garfield said that even if the ads aren't a success, the buzz around them has helped justify the costs.
"Everybody wants to break through," Garfield said. "So you want to make sure that you have the attention of the audience. If you're spending $100,000 a second you really don't want them to take that opportunity to go to the bathroom."
Appealing to Football Fans
Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said the creation of a "Super Sunday" for advertising stemmed from fears that the massive audience of football fans wouldn't focus in on the commercials.
"The worry was that you would spend this huge amount of money for this big audience and then they would never see your ad because you'd be going out to the microwave or the bathroom," he said.
So they turned the ads into a spectacle of their own.
"For 20 years now, we have all -- like lambs to the slaughter -- fallen for one of the greatest Madison Avenue tricks," Thompson said. "In the end, there are a couple of good ads, but it's not nearly as phenomenal as we have been led to believe it is."
Yet in the days leading up to the game, people inevitably talk and write about the ads. And sure enough, the Monday after the game people talk about their favorites, regardless of their quality.
"There are more laugh-out-loud moments on a mediocre episode of 'The Daily Show' than you'll probably get straight through on the Super Bowl," Thompson said, adding that the Super Bowl celebrations may make some commercials seem more fun than they actually are.
"It doesn't hurt that half the audience might be half-tanked by the time they see the ads."