Jan. 22, 2012 SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If the Super Bowl's sexiest advertising has an epicenter, this is it.
That's because GoDaddy.com, the godfather of sultry if not tacky Super Bowl spots, is headquartered here. The domain name registrar let a USA TODAY reporter inside its fortress-like headquarters as it shot one of its two 2012 Super Bowl commercials. Its new, multimillion-dollar production studio is buzzing this day with sights and sounds aimed to tease, titillate — and taunt.
Here's Danica Patrick, arguably as famous for her GoDaddy spots as for her race car driving, standing on the set in 4½-inch stilettos. Here, too, is Jillian Michaels, the shapely fitness guru and official GoDaddy Girl. She's helping Patrick strategically apply body paint to what will appear, in the ad, to be a nude model.
Sexy ads are slinking back to the Super Bowl. At stake: the eyeballs of more than 100 million Super Bowl viewers. And the urgent need to drive all of them online to find out more, socialize and tweet with friends and ultimately buy that beer, smartphone or luxury car. Thirty-some advertisers will spend upwards of $230 million just for the airtime to fight for attention in the Feb. 5 game. But that only partly explains why sexual imagery in Super Bowl advertising is becoming about as common as sand in the Sahara.
"We are in a very weird moment in time, with daughters of feminists taking pole-dancing lessons," offers Barbara Lippert, former Adweek ad critic and now pop-culture guru at ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners. "Everyone is looking for fantasy, because reality is so cruel."
Perhaps, then, it's only appropriate that the ultimate football game would beget this ultimate fantasy commercial: a gorgeous, GoDaddy model who appears to be in the buff. Bob Parsons, GoDaddy's controversial but confident founder, has a simple explanation: "Sex sells on the Super Bowl."
Or does it?
Studies show sexy is risky
Not according to the research gurus at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who have been analyzing Super Bowl ads for more than two decades. They've found that spots with sexual imagery take a 10% hit in "likability" vs. ads without racy images.
"As a basis of comparison, imagine if you were a comedian and you knew your audience felt sexy jokes were 10% less funny than regular jokes," says Chuck Tomkovick, the marketing professor who oversees the study. "You'd tell them very judiciously." That analysis was based on years of results from USA TODAY's Ad Meter, a consumer panel that electronically rates Super Bowl ads moment-by-moment as they air.
While some of the biggest Super Bowl advertisers have spent millions on ads that exude sexual imagery, most viewers actually prefer to see ads with kids or animals. "The more you put sex in an ad, the less it is liked," Tomkovick says. "It's like using Botox but not having it work out."
Don't tell that to advertisers. There are signs that they, and society, have moved beyond the societal prudishness that followed Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime "wardrobe malfunction" that bared her breast for the world to see. Sexy Super Bowl spots are back.
GoDaddy's second spot even features a rebirth of the group Pussycat Dolls, whose members dress more like exotic dancers than pop singers.
Beyond GoDaddy's ads, sexy model Adriana Lima will appear scantily clad in a Kia spot, and also in an ad for another Super Bowl advertiser that won't discuss it yet.
Online consumer voting will determine if Doritos airs one with a guy whose wish is for three "hot, wild" girls. And, in a nod to equal time for sexy images, clothier H&M will air a spot with soccer hunk David Beckham in his underwear.
While the sexual imagery in Super Bowl ads may be getting more risqué, there's a long history of participants. Doritos has used it. So has Pepsi. And Anheuser-Busch. And Victoria's Secret. And Skechers treated viewers to a sweaty Kim Kardashian last year.
GoDaddy kind of keeps it clean
But perhaps no one has used sexual imagery more shamelessly than GoDaddy. A GoDaddy Super Bowl spot without an underdressed babe or two would be like the New England Patriots showing up without quarterback Tom Brady.
"We set the standard of indecency," jokes Parsons, who wears a diamond in his ear and an ever-present smirk on his face. He takes special pride in being widely accused of single-handedly bringing down the tone of Super Bowl advertising.
"My ads never suggest the act of sex," he insists, with a wink. "Any sex in the ads is manufactured in the minds of the viewers."
Not so, says Christy Buchanan, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. Most parents — particularly of grammar-school kids — wish the Super Bowl had more "family-friendly" ads, she says. Parents may want to distract kids under age 10 from watching certain racy spots, she says. For pre-teens and teens, parents may want to comment even as the ad runs, such as, "That's not how most women dress or act," she says.
Tracing Super sex back to Farrah
Some say it all began in 1973, when Noxzema paired then-little-known model Farrah Fawcett with star quarterback Joe Namath in a Super Bowl spot. In it, a smirking Namath looks at the camera and giggles, "I'm so excited, I'm gonna get creamed." Then, a sultry Fawcett sensually covers his face with shaving cream while she keeps within kissing distance. It ends with Namath telling Fawcett, "You've got a great pair of hands."
Namath now says that he had no idea at the time that the spot would arguably change the course of Super Bowl advertising.
"I guess that could have been considered pretty racy at the time," he says, in a phone interview. "But if you compare that to what's gone on the past 20 years, it's tame. If folks had a problem with it, well, that's their problem. It was just a good-looking, attractive commercial."
In other sizzling Super Bowl spots of the past, Pepsi placed its beverage in the hands of model Cindy Crawford, who sensually drinks it as two young boys watch with their mouths agape. (Turns out, the boys were ogling the newly designed Pepsi can, not Cindy.) Last year, its Pepsi Max brand got even racier, when viewers could hear what a guy was thinking while sitting next to a girl on their first date: "I wanna sleep with her. I wanna sleep with her. I wanna sleep with her."
It's no secret that Victoria's Secret has played the sex card with its Super Bowl spots. In 1999, when the Internet was young, Victoria's Secret aired a first-quarter spot with lingerie models on a runway to promote an online fashion show coming four days later. But 1.2 million viewers went immediately to the VS site, causing it to crash.
"It's the largest, collective behavioral shift of a mass audience in history," insists Edward Razek, marketing chief at Victoria's Secret. More than 1 million folks who sat down to watch a football game suddenly turned to their computers. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs called it one of the 10 seminal events in the history of the Internet.
Then, in 2007, model Adriana Lima starred in a Victoria's Secret Super Bowl spot wearing the brand's skimpy lingerie and sensually twirling a football to the tune of I'm in the Mood for Love.
Then, there's Kim Kardashian last year in a racy spot for Skechers, getting up-close and personal with her personal trainer. The spot garnered Skechers an astounding 1.6 billion media impressions, says Leonard Armato, chief marketer.
Why these women work for GoDaddy
Here, on GoDaddy's Super Bowl ad set, the only thing hotter than the lights is the action.
In the spot, Patrick and Michaels appear to be painting the GoDaddy slogan on a hotter-than-hot nude model.
Between shoots, both women discuss why they appear in these titillating spots.
"The ads put me and my team in front of 100 million people. That's a lot of eyes," says Patrick, who has appeared in more Super Bowl ads (12, including the two this year) than anyone. "It's not everyone's cup of tea, but the networks are the filter." She says she did turn down one GoDaddy request a few years back — to put her in a tiny red bikini. "That's not going to happen," she says.
Michaels says she's baffled at the outrage at GoDaddy spots.
"People just love to bash GoDaddy ads," she says, as a make-up artist applies blush to her face. "But there's nothing in the ads that exploits women." Instead, Michaels insists, "The ads allow women to be strong, but still feminine and sexy." What's more, she points out, "We're fully clothed the entire time."
Truth be told, the action in each GoDaddy ad is just a big tease to get folks to go online and find out more about the company that people use to register domain names and host websites. The ploy, which GoDaddy has used for eight consecutive Super Bowls, works ridiculously well.
When GoDaddy aired its first Super Bowl spot in 2005, it was a $100 million company few people knew with a 16% market share. Fast-forward to 2012, and GoDaddy is a $1.1 billion company with a 52% market share.
"Our Super Bowl ads have been a major, major contributor to this," Parsons says. He's spent roughly $70 million to create, air and promote those ads, but Parsons directly credits them for an additional $1 billion in business. "That's a pretty fair trade-off."
But no GoDaddy commercial — and few Super Bowl ads — has left a stronger impression than GoDaddy's very first Super Bowl entry in 2005. It was a low-brow parody of Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" the year before. In the spot, a buxom woman testifies before a censorship committee even as the strap on her GoDaddy T-shirt pops.
Then, there are the GoDaddy ads you'll never see. Several years ago, after Paris Hilton was involved in a drunken-driving case, Parsons says he tried to sign her up to star in a Super Bowl spot. She declined, he laughs, "because she told us she had an image to maintain."