2006: Ratcheting Up the Superbowl XL R.O.I.

December 1, 2006

Some think the Roman numerals XL denoting the Super Bowl‘s fortieth game stands for the extreme caution marketers exercised in the lingering wake of the infamous wardrobe malfunction. Indeed there was remarkably little crass, frat-house humor in the 2006 game and the networks subjected it to a five-second broadcast delay. (Even the Rolling Stones were buttoned up.)

Others read XL as the extraordinary length of time it took ABC to unload its ad inventory in an era of On-Demand everything and with the lure of the Winter Olympics not two weeks hence. Even with drastic discounts, it took ABC until 24 hours before showtime to sell out, and even then, its parent, Disney, was the second biggest advertiser. (ABC's ambitious self promotion of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" paid off. Nearly 38 million viewers stayed around to watch "Grey's Anatomy" which followed the game.)

Or XL could have signaled extra-large as in the size of the audience. Ninety-one million Americans sat through the nail-bitter as the Steelers defeated the Mariners in Detroit. Such big numbers made XL the most watched TV program in a decade and the third most watched Super Bowl ever.

XL also meant extending the line-and life-of the Super Bowl commercial-and ratcheting up sponsors' ROI. Marketers demonstrated once and for all that they could imbue their commercials with a Web-afterlife. Instead of vanishing after their 30 seconds of fame, XL commercials amortized their costs because of their wide availability through streaming video online.

Indeed, the new metric of success seemed to be the number of hits on websites the next day - and how often these commercials were watched or downloaded. Video clips of the spots ran on marketers' own websites, of course, and also on AOL, Google, MSN and Yahoo, ESPN, the NFL's website, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. On game day and the Monday after, 2.9 million people streamed Super Bowl commercials from MSN alone, almost three times its normal Sunday traffic -and four times the volume of a typical Monday.

The post-game buzz "more than made up for the cost" of the commercial declared Steven R. Schreibman, VP-brand management at Nationwide Financial. The day after its first Super Bowl ad, Nationwide saw a 162 percent traffic surge as viewers logged on to re-watch hunky Fabio push a Venetian gondola in what appeared to be a shampoo ad. As he presents his passenger with a rose, they pass under a bridge and Fabio emerges aged and wrinkled to enforce the insurer's pitch for financial planning.

If the ads weren't especially creative, the "aftermarket" enticements were. Diet Pepsi sent viewers to its special microsite brownandbubbly.com. Sierra Mist and Dove also did with mist-takes.com and campaignforrealbeauty.com respectively. Dove also scored with a gentle spot that stood out like a smooth thumb: it celebrated the beauty and self-esteem of females of different races and body types. "Wishes she were a blonde"-"Afraid she's fat"-"Thinks she's ugly" spurred a 1,600 percent increase in traffic on its website between 7 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. on Monday, compared to an average 24- hour period. In its Sierra Mist spot, Kathy Griffin played an airport security checker who confiscates the "Eeeeping" beverage.

Whopperettes.com replayed Burger King's Broadway-style extravaganza commercial where chorus girls, dressed as meat patties, tomato, lettuce and condiments plop down atop each other to build a Whopper. The website also provided tongue-in-cheek cast profiles, sketches of the Whopperettes' costumes and sheet music for the jingle. Fifty thousand visitors checked it out within 12 hours. More caught it on Sprint wireless phones. A link on burgerking.com whisked the curious to an interactive Whopperettes area. Soon the commercial was shown in movie theaters. Whopperette posters went up in 7,600 Burger Kings and on table tents.

Aleve testified to a more than 100 percent increase in web traffic after Star Trekker Leonard Nimoy banished arthritis pain to perform the Vulcan split finger trademark gesture in an in-game spot. Logons to FedEx.com rocketed 13,000 percent as fans re-viewed the carrier's Jurassic drama in which a hapless caveman whose message sent via pterodactyl is intercepted by a T-rex is fired for not using FedEx. His Neanderthal boss doesn't care that FedEx doesn't exist yet. Even Sharpie, which later regretted their inadequate job directing viewers online from a small image at the end of its commercial, reported congestion 400 percent higher than on the previous Sunday.

For the first time Anheuser-Busch posted its spots online. The three most downloaded: the Clydesdales' football game interrupted by a sheared sheep streaking past, fans in a stadium fill and then empty a giant glass of beer by flipping colored cards, and a hopeful foal fruitlessly pulls the Bud wagon until (unknown to him) the paternal Clydesdales push it forward from the rear. Others that generated gossip: a self-satisfied party host hides his Bud Light from guests by installing a "magic fridge"on a revolving wall. When the wall pivots, frat boys on the other side worship it and raid its contents. In another Bud Light spot, three guys clamber up to their roofs to settle in lawn chairs with their brew, after having told their wives they'd intended to clean gutters and fix satellite dishes.

In addition to driving viewers online, XL advertisers engaged in more experiential marketing. In the week leading up to the Steelers' triumph, brands took to the streets of Detroit. At Diet Pepsi's Rookie Challenge, visitors hurled passes to cardboard cutout players while Pepsi proper sponsored a Punt, Pass, and Kick activity. (In the game Diet Pepsi relied on Jackie Chan, Jay Mohr, and P. Diddy, music, a breathless pace, and the customary dig at Coke.) Fans at the FedEx Quarterback Challenge aimed at a moving target while avoiding a rushing defense. In the Ford Family Fun Zone they enjoyed free rides in a Model T. Ice sculptures adorned the streets at GM's Ice Garden, and in the Caddy tent, guests were photographed for a mock cover of Sports Illustrated.

Cadillac scored better on the streets of Motown than on the TV screens of America. Soon after the game, it yanked half the account from its long time agency Leo Burnett which had produced a glitzy, pricey, surreal 60 second "fashion show" in which the 2007 Escalade emerges from a pool of liquid chrome. Viewers were mystified. Its sibling Hummer did better implying that its new H3 was tough and cute by showing the SUV as the offspring of a rampaging Godzilla-like giant and towering robot.

By contrast, Toyota broke ground with a Camry spot in both English and Spanish and Muppet Kermit pitched a green ecologically friendly Ford. Cadillac was not alone in discovering the well it had used before had dried up. In Super Bowl 2005 GoDaddy.com scored big by playing off the Janet Jackson costume stunt. This time the buxom babe with the unraveling tank top attracted little attention, despite the company trying to get some publicity from its 14 attempts to get past ABC's censors. Gillette compared its new Fusion razor to master fusion, the process that powers the sun. Drones at CareerBuilder.com work with monkeys and jackasses, and a weakling bests his tormentor by using his Sprint phones ad a "crime deterrent."

Even the halftime show was squeaky clean. Around the time the first Super Bowl was played, the Rolling Stones had to alter the words of "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "life together" for an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." On a Sunday night nearly four decades later, two of their three songs, "Start Me Up," and "Rough Justice" had some randy lyrics bleeped. They'd have played intact on Wisteria Lane but not at the now ultra sensitive SB. Sixty-two year old Mick Jagger, whose belly button showed beneath his T-shirt, joked that his band could have worked Super Bowl I..."but everything comes to he who waits."

Super Plays/Take-Away
More than anything else Super Bowl XL was about extending the life of the commercials in the game to amortize their cost. This meant building experiences around the commercials and more widely, motivating viewers to become engaged, to go online for more.  XL marketers understood that the Super Bowl may be marketing's greatest portal to talk to the interested.


"2006: Ratcheting Up the Superbowl XL R.O.I." Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.