FedEx's Super Bowl Ads

December 1, 2006

In 1973, soon after Federal Express began shuttling packages in the dead of night, it began running some of the wittiest, most engaging ads around. Its first commercial announced the new airline with "no first class, no meals, no movies, in fact, no passengers. Just packages." Next, FedEx laced into then-industry leader Emery Air Freight, showing the results of a test where it sent 47 packages filled with sand by both carriers.

Research convinced FedEx that speed of delivery wasn't all that mattered to American business. More important was the security of knowing what they sent would get there. "When we first started we thought that we were selling the transportation of goods; in fact, we were selling peace of mind," founder Fred Smith has said. That insight led to "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." and an engaging, memorable character named Spleen.

After watching balding, mustachioed John Moschitta perform his fast talking specialty on "That's Incredible," BBDO concocted Spleen who spews into an intercom at 450 words a minute to mimic the pace at which FedEx operated. "Hellloooo Federal'' and other ads made America roar, albeit nervously, about wimpy employees and incompetent executives.

The situations were close to real life but the characters enacting them were hilarious caricatures. Take Sprizter hiding under a desk because the package he sent never reached Albuquerque. And Bingham, who ``sent the blueprints to Birmingham for the big meeting tomorrow'' that was to be in Binghamton. Or the heavy jowled, hapless schlepper who can't count on anything nowadays -not a working elevator, being able to shake off a sniffing dog or motivating his secretary to type his letters-nothing but FedEx.

By 1996 FedEx had gone global. Suspecting humor didn't travel well, it got serious. FedEx's "the way the world works" spots told of entrepreneurs around the world -like a publisher in Wales whose pop-up books thrilled children in Thailand - helped by its delivery and warehousing inventory. And in the game, an unseen Linda Hunt recounted a mystical tale about the company's most precious package -yours.

FedEx's funny bone was not long stilled. In Super Bowl XXXII (1998) a fictitious company scrolls an apology across a test pattern of color bars: its real Super Bowl commercial with dancing kangaroos and country music superstar Garth Brooks couldn't run, the voice-over explained, because "some boob'' from its (now ex) ad agency didn't use FedEx to get it to NBC.

In the 1999 game, Detroit Red Wings hockey victors and chanting fans impatiently await the Stanley Cup in Joe Louis Arena. Then, some fly-by-night delivery service shows up but instead of the Cup, in the package is burro food. Meanwhile a Bolivian farmer named Jose Luis Arena receives the Stanley Cup. In another absolutely positively winning Super Bowl play, in 1999, a hapless swimming pool cleaner receives Harvard's acceptance letter-20 years too late courtesy of the Lucky Shamrock delivery service.

A going "overseas or over the rainbow" spot on the 2000 game caused an uproar. FedEx mixed clips from The Wizard of Oz with images of its trucks delivering helium-filled-balloons to Munchkins whose hoarse voices go high once they inhale the gas. The National Inhalant Prevention Control group protested that the message was wrong. FedEx squelched the ads.

Ads in the 2001 Super Bowl had the mission of touting FedEx's extended hours. At a formal dinner a CEO attributes his success to his staff's poise and professionalism, just as a junior employee, in a headlong rush to FedEx, tumbles onto a guest table. No need for such frantic rushing anymore, the narrator explains.

Despite being bloodied by the economy, FedEx bought time in Super Bowl 2002 to air a Dilbert-type concept. Some execs are discussing ways to cut costs. One nerd suggests using FedEx, and immediately his swinish boss makes the same suggestion with a different hand gesture.

The ASI research house claims FedEx had the highest scoring commercials it ever tested for any category. "Absolutely, positively" was more than a gimmick. It was a slogan that made anxious people question the importance of saving a few cents compared to saving peace of mind. The positioning built the company and made us all believe that nothing is certain except death taxes and FedEx deliveries.

Super Plays/Take-Away
FedEx Super Bowl commercials have been more than gimmicks. They have consistently and adroitly given wing to this brand. Choosing the Super Bowl made FedEx the choice among all level of employees from mailroom personnel, to secretaries, to managers and executives. Spreading its wings here made FedEx generic for package delivery.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.