Super Bowl ads sell despite economy

Screen shot from a Miller High Life promotional video for 1-second ad campaign.


KAI RYSSDAL: The competition during the Super Bowl on Sunday is not going to be limited just to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals. Marketing professionals will be gunning for the honor of running the best ad. They'll be paying as much as $3 million for 30 seconds of air time. It's a lot of money in boom times, let alone a recession.

Rob Walker is with us to talk about the merits, and the possible pitfalls, of advertising in the Super Bowl. He writes the Consumed column for The New York Times magazine.

Hey, Rob.

ROB WALKER: Thanks for having me, Kai.

RYSSDAL: So you would think, given the way the economy is, that the Super Bowl and its ad territory would not necessarily be the bazillion-dollar extravaganza it always is. But somehow, these spots are expensive again this year.

WALKER: Yeah, once again breaking all previous records. And, you know, one of the explanations is, this is the last great forum like this. There is no other single event that the entire country gathers around. And that's still a valuable thing, no matter what the economy is.

RYSSDAL: But do you think those ads pay off?

WALKER: They can. I think that what's changed in how that is sort of measured isn't just the ad itself, but kind of the hype around the ad, both before and after. And I think the advertising agencies are very aware of this. And, you know, they put the spots on YouTube, sometimes in advance to run up the sort of total YouTube views and stuff like this so they can claim that their ad was a cultural phenomenon.

RYSSDAL: We will see once again this year, obviously, Budweiser complete with Clydesdales. But some companies that have never been in the Super Bowl are going to be there this year. One of them is Pedigree, the dog food company. And they've got this ad going this year that's got, I guess, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses and ostriches. And the tagline is: Isn't it time to think about a dog? Let's roll a little bit of that tape.

[Audio from Pedigree ad]

WOMAN: C'mon, Rusty! C'mon, let's go for a walk! [Crashing sounds.] . . . Rusty!

MAILMAN: Morning, Mrs. Lawrence. [sound of ostrich escaping house] . . . Not again!

MRS. LAWRENCE: Bruno! Come back here! Bruno, you bad, bad bird.

ANNOUNCER: The Pedigree adoption drive. Help us help dogs.

Why would Pedigree get in the Super Bowl now? Is it a case of, do you think, that the place to take risks is when the economy is bad and maybe you might get the bigger payoff?

WALKER: Yeah, for companies that are in a position to do that, that's, I think, exactly what they're thinking. Is that, you know, they're looking around. They're seeing, "Well, if my competitors are too scared to do this then I'm gonna seize market share. People, you know . . . People still need to buy dog food. No one's spending really goes to zero in a bad economy. People are going to be out there spending money, and they want to get in front of you and make you think about them as one of the places that you'll spend your money.

RYSSDAL: Let me get you to what we might call the "anti-ads" here for a second. Budweiser I talked about. They'll be there with Clydesdales and all of that. Miller High Life, though, is going to run a one-second ad in some markets. It's poking fun at Budweiser for spending all that money on 30 seconds of ad time. They've put together a few preview one-second shots. Let's listen to a couple of those:

[Audio of Miller ads]

MILLER DELIVERY MAN: Miller Time! . . . Champagney of Beers! . . . Bean dip! . . . Bon jour, Milwaukee! . . . One, Mississippi!

So, we ran a couple of them together. That was five seconds-worth of one-second ads. What do you think about that strategy?

WALKER: I think it's actually incredibly clever. And in no small part because of what I was talking about earlier that it's not just about an ad that runs during the Super Bowl. It's about how much of the hype you can kind of get in on. All of the pre-Super Bowl advertising round-ups, and the post-Super Bowl round-ups. And Miller has inserted itself into that story.

RYSSDAL: What about opportunity cost here. That is, people who are usually in the Super Bowl but aren't this year. Good move / bad move?

WALKER: Well, the one that leaps to mind is GM. And, you know, I'm sure if they had their druthers, they would be doing it. And I don't even know if you can characterize it as a strategic decision. I mean, they're literally borrowing money from us right now. So they have to pinch whatever pennies they can. The one way you don't want to be part of the Super Bowl ad round-up stories is to be the company being mentioned as not being able to afford to be there.

RYSSDAL: Yeah, right. Good point.

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine. He's also an occasional commentator for this program. Rob, thanks a lot.

WALKER: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.


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