Technology and the Enigmatic Super Bowl Spot

December 1, 2006

Some 133 million Americans and 650 million other viewers in 188 countries -- as many as had watched Princess Diana's funeral - tuned in to NBC on January 25, 1998 to witness (in 17 languages) the Broncos K.O. the Packers, 31-24. It was the third most watched program in TV history and the second time a wild-card team won. Because of the mammoth audience, the 58 advertisers who'd forked over a record $43,333 a second or $1.3 million for 30 of them (up from $1.2 million in 1997) felt they got their money's worth from Super Bowl XXXII.

There were some spots that didn't sell technology: Superman and Jerry Seinfeld rescue Lois Lane who forgot her wallet at the supermarket, but as the man of steel never carries cash, Jerry's Amex card must save the day. Wile E. Coyote took viewers on a loopy Roadrunner cartoon extravaganza for Pontiac Grand Prix. And FedEx presented color bars after some boob at its (ex) ad agency used the wrong service to get its real Super Bowl ad brimming with stars and dancing kangaroos delivered to NBC. But, by and large, XXXII was all about computer chips and software, telecommunications gizmos and services, and satellite TV equipment.

IBM was late getting into PCs but in 1981 it introduced an Apple clone. Apple |sardonically welcomed it, implying it felt no threat. The PC itself may not have been one, but IBM's marketing was. Within two years Big Blue was selling more PCs than Apple - until the 1984 Orwellian ad that launched Macintosh. IBM fought back with Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character from "Modern Times." He humanized the technology and made it less daunting to the masses. In one spot he manages a ‘30s factory where roller skating lackeys race to ominous music to keep up with their Sisyphean task of shipping boxes of roller skates. Once the manager installs an IBM PC, the factory hums.

Unlike AOL, CompuServe had been decidedly consumer-unfriendly in identifying its members with long strings of numbers instead of catchy names. But when AOL's offer of an unlimited access plan swamped its system, CompuServe seized the moment and charged into the game. Its pre-kickoff ad showed a blank screen to the sound of a phone dialing and repeatedly getting a busy signal. "Looking for dependable Internet access," the ad asks. Try CompuServe's 1-888-NOT-BUSY." The rivalry ended abruptly in January 1998 when AOL bought CompuServe.

Traditionally, Intel had addressed only the tech savvy. But once masses began logging on, Intel aimed to be less intimidating. In the 1997 game it unleashed the "Bunny People" to suggest that its Pentium MMX chip added fun to the computer experience. Technicians in a "clean room" wear colorfully vivid suits, not the standard sterile whites, as they assemble the new chip to Wild Cherry's 70s disco hit "Play that Funky Music, White Boy." The result: 90 percent instant brand recognition, gloated Dennis Carter, senior VP-for marketing. Intel even sold 500,000 "Bunny People" beanbag dolls. It followed that up, in 1998, with black and white whodunit ads narrated by comedian Steve Martin inviting viewers to go online to "pick the perp" who stole the chip from an Intel clean room. Earlier in the game Intel floated clues and a later spot fingered Suzy the Mouse, convicted by 388,761 voters.

In 1997, virus protection firm McAfee Associates changed its name to Network Associates and produced oddball commercials to alert folks to its new moniker. In one spot in Super Bowl XXXII two Russian bomb silo attendants fret about the source of a computer order to launch missiles but-with a dash of black humor-they decide to blow up the world anyway. The commercial captured the company's zestful spirit-but also too much of its money. Future marketing outlays went to rename the coliseum, home to the Oakland As and the NFL Raiders to score impressions on TV, radio and in print.

Iomega bet that computer users would pay $199 for a zip drive that would store much more than floppy disks. It plowed $100 million into ads in 1997 to demonstrate why you should back up files. The ads worked, perhaps too well. Consumers bought more than 12 million Zip drives, only to find that many malfunctioned. Iomega was vilified.

At a board meeting in 1997, Auto-by-Tel Corp. CEO Pete Ellis shocked directors by blurting out that he'd just bought time on the Super Bowl.

The company's sales were just $ 5 million and it had no operating profit, showroom, or sales staff. "Pain Relief" illustrated the ease of online car buying making Auto-by-Tel the game's first Web advertiser. ABT returned in 1998 with an animated spot voiced by Leonard Nimoy narrating a pajama-clad customer's travels through cyberspace to the company's website. The spot prompted a 17-fold increase in site activity and launched a three month campaign that put ABT on the map.

To sell its satellite TV, Primestar had beamed to the Super Bowl in 1990, 1995 and 1996. At first its strategy "was to say it's okay to like TV and really cool to admit it," said ad creator John Peebles. Subscribers gloated about the 95 channels they received for about $1 a day. In Super Bowl 1998, Primestar abandoned the value proposition to get emotional. A guy lovingly polishes his vintage Ford Mustang when a huge sewer pipe rolls off a truck toward them. He frantically moves the car . . . into the path of the pipe to save his even more beloved satellite dish.

Before 1998, Oracle had advertised little, but what it did do was for companies, not consumers. Then it pioneered a new, inexpensive plug and play network for consumers. Inspired by Apple's "1984," the company hoped to start an Oracle revolution. Teasers quoted JFK and Neil Armstrong about revolution and "remarkable moments of change," then show a red chair in an Asian temple as script inquires: "What's next?" The answer came in a 60-second in-game spot. The chair sits undisturbed amidst carnage as the narrator noted that the next revolution won't involve violence but access to information, a revolution Oracle is enabling.

Quirky "Do You Yahoo" ads won yodels when they broke in 1996. Then a luckless fisherman typed ‘'bait'' on the Net and guided by his Yahoo search, soon reeled in a 250-pound tuna. In 2002 the search engine moved to the Super Bowl to break out from the pack and carve a personality as a place that's fun, irreverent, innovative and leader-like where ordinary folks go for extraordinary solutions. In its spot a tourist on a Micronesian island and a dolphin discover they've respectively learned about this secret haunt and how to talk from Yahoo.

Other Super Bowl advertisers also gave speech lessons. In the game, played in Qualcomm Stadium, Qualcomm's black-and-white spot aimed to suggest that even in uncertain situations, you can rely on its wireless phones. A traveler in a third world country mistakenly thinks the revolutionary throng outside his hotel balcony is celebrating his phone, rather than the dictator-type holding court from an adjoining balcony. Nokia's message was equally static filled. A purple-clad Drew Carey one-ups a purple Cadillac by tapping a ditty on his cell phone.

Even though it spent many millions here, AT&T Wireless did not come across loud and clear. In the weeks before the game, it plastered cryptic questions such as "Is mLife fattening?" everywhere. It repeated those questions in four 15-second commercials on XXXIV (2000). Bickering children playing with frogs and a Japanese grandfather confide how they crave mLife, two accountants pretend to know about mLife to impress a girl and a farmer describes how he needs to get a mLife and "let the pigs feed themselves." Late in the game AT&T vaporized speculation that it stood for midlife, insurance or a 401(k) plan and defined "mlife" as the mobile way to live. People start out connected but don't need to stay tethered to communicate. Bellybuttons become a metaphor for land lines.

It was reproached for spending exorbitantly in a tight economy and for ads that were confusing and perhaps even misleading. Most people thought Met Life had paid for them. Met Life sued to block the ads and Ad Age chief  Rance Crain joked the insurer "should sue to force AT&T to keep running" the spots. MetLife soon came to its senses. Many urged cutting the cord on mLife, but a 1900 percent surge in traffic to the website post-game and 650,000 sign ups granted a stayof execution. Subsequent spots explained mLife's bells and whistles

In 2001, Cingular, the recently-created venture of SBC and BellSouth, wanted to demonstrate how wireless allowed freedom of expression. In one spot, unexpected "expressions" percolate from football players at the "touchdown" dance class set to Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." But what scored an emotional touchdown was the commercial featuring artist and cerebral palsy sufferer Dan Keplinger. As he struggles to paint wispy fiery red streaks with a brush attached to headgear he tells the world (his distorted speech accompanied by subtitles) that he is ‘unbelievably lucky.'' The tag: "What do you have to say?"

Traditional phone networks also used the Super Bowl to ring up America.

As the sole telecommunications sponsor in the 1980s, GTE wired systems for the game and showcased NBC sportscaster Dick Enberg in commercials on it. Even after the price of ad-time forced GTE to retreat, it continued to distribute seat cushions with its logo at the stadium. In 1987 Sprint shouldered in, angling to attract a larger share of the then $50-billion long-distance phone market. In three spots it noted how three out of four people preferred its "Clear across America" sound quality over AT&T's. Two years later AT&T came here to announce it would waive the connection charge and pay the cost of switching from MCI and Sprint to those who sign up for its WATS flat-rate long-distance service. Follow-up research found this the least liked, but most recalled spot of the game. In Super Bowl XXIV (1990) Sprint unveiled a calling card that relied on a "voiceprint" to usher in a "new world."

Off the field, MCI's "Friends and Family" had been wooing customers from AT&T. In the 1994 game AT&T struck back offering a discounted long distance plan. By year's end, more than a million new customers had signed on, the first big jump since Ma Bell had broken up 11 years earlier. In XXIX (1995) psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers analyzed herself to learn why she'd use any service other than MCI. AT&T jabbed back but by the 1998 game had a change of heart.

Then, warm, fuzzy ads, took off on the old "telephone" game. Sensing people had tired of the phone giants' rancorous battle and were unnerved by high technology, AT&T sought to mollify them with a sweet spot about a budding romance. A cute 7th-grader confides to her friends the boy she wants to ask her to the school dance. They swear secrecy, but blurt her secret every which way. The next year AT&T showed how its flat rate and a single monthly bill fit the time's busy lifestyles and sued the NFL for not paying a $ 100,527.18 long-distance phone bill from two years earlier.

Super Plays/Take-Away
Men are usually the first adaptors of gizmos so it's not surprising to see so many advertised here. Nor was it surprising to see how many tried to simplify their systems, and present their high tech products in a high touch way. What is surprising is that a few went in for either detailed, rational product messages at a time when people want to be grabbed quickly, and to get something back for watching the commercials, or by running perplexing and enigmatic spots. MLife's cerebral commercials, for example, left viewers unsure what they were being pitched. And, of course, Iomega once again confirmed that the fastest way to kill a weak product is with highly visible and effective ads.


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