High-stakes battle for viewers' attention

For advertisers, the high-stakes battle for viewers' attention is every bit as brutal as the action in the game.

For creative directors at top ad agencies developing game plans for Super Bowl commercials -- which can cost their clients $2.6 million for 30 seconds -- victory is the only option.

With the big game having become as famous for its innovative spots as for its on-field spectacle, the pressure is on to create compelling messages that will dominate water-cooler conversation for days and weeks. The bottom line? Offer viewers something entertaining or run the risk of being zapped by TiVo.

"Spots that are wordy generally don't do well in a party atmosphere," says Barry Burdiak, senior vp and group creative director at DDB Chicago, a seasoned player on the Anheuser-Busch team. "Entertainment is the price of entry, and more and more clients are seeing the Super Bowl as a valuable, efficient vehicle to further their image."

Adds Jeff Goodby, chief creative officer at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, who is working up possible Anheuser-Busch spots and creating the third year of Diamond Food Inc.'s Emerald Nuts Super Bowl spots, "Commercials have to be entertaining, or consumers are going to do away with them."

As the Super Bowl has gotten more and more attention for its advertising, the price of commercial time has made it a high-stakes game for sponsors.

It is not uncommon for advertisers such as CareerBuilder.com, which spends about $25 million per annum, and Diamond's Emerald brand, which spends less than $10 million a year on advertising of all stripes, to pony up most of their TV budgets for one big Super Bowl splash.

Last year, an Emerald snack spot crafted by Goodby's all-stars poked fun at mnemonic-device memorization with a spot showing businessmen in a living room watching a machete demonstration -- then suddenly spotting a tiny financial adviser across the room. A voice-over bellowed, "Eagle-eyed Machete Enthusiasts Recognize a Little Druid Networking Under the Stairs!"

This year, Goodby says the agency is moving beyond the Emerald acronym, but beyond that, he's mum on details, except to say that Robert Goulet will appear in the company's Super Bowl commercial. What's important for clients, Goodby says, is to build on previous years' spots -- essentially creating a strong brand identity that is tied to the Super Bowl. "If you're only going to be on the Super Bowl once, it doesn't make a difference," he says. "Don't bother."

CareerBuilder.com is heeding that advice. Last year, the Web site scored big with three spots from Chicago-based agency Cramer-Krasselt, which depicted monkeys dressed as executives flipping office sales charts upside down, smoking cigars and burning $20 bills as they partied to Quiet Riot's 1980s arena rock anthem "Cum on Feel the Noize."

CareerBuilder vp consumer marketing Richard Castellini says the cost of buying ad time during the game delivers actual, measurable results. "It's done a tremendous amount for (us)," he says. "It put us on the national map." The two days following CareerBuilder's Super Bowl premiere in 2005 were the company's best days ever, he recalls. "In comparison to what we spend overall, it's a small proportion," Castellini offers. "The only question we ask ourselves is, 'Do we have effective creative to resonate?'"

Cramer-Krasselt CEO Peter Krivkovich says DGA-nominated commercial helmer Bryan Buckley will direct the CareerBuilder ad, which ditches the primates in favor of a new theme, reportedly gladiators. To promote the Super Bowl spot, the monkeys were pink-slipped in ads running now.

Krivkovich says the agency's Super Bowl resume dates back to a famous 1974 spot for Masterlock in which a bullet hit one of the company's durable mechanisms, all in slow motion. "That spot was the beginning of people saying, 'I saw that on the Super Bowl,'" he says. "In 1974, at $107,000, they spent nearly their entire budget" then "merchandized the bejesus out of it. ... You can have a brilliant, funny, unique execution, but if it isn't coupled with consumer insight, it will get forgotten."

With time going for roughly $87,000 per second, once-perennial Super Bowl sponsors such as Masterlock or even mortgage company Ameriquest have been priced out of the game, leaving more time open for giant advertisers like Anheuser-Busch, which, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, spends more than $300 million annually on advertising; with a total of five minutes this year, Anheuser-Busch is the game's leading advertiser.

"Commercial time has become part of the experience, part of the talk value. It also helps the game by bringing in a broader audience," says Tony Ponturo, vp global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch.

Automotive manufacturers also consistently advertise. Honda is purchasing three time slots this year, one of which it will use to tout its environmental commitment and two that will feature the Element crab. The pressure to deliver entertaining spots is great, though. From a creative perspective, Bob Merlotti, a principal at agency Skeleton Crew, says that vehicle ads can be particularly challenging.

"The worst monstrosities in the Super Bowl are usually car ads," Merlotti says. "The Cadillac 'Led Zeppelin' ads were a horror show. 'You know, Madge, now that I think about it, it has been a long time since we rock 'n' rolled!'"

Merlotti worked with Burdiak on spots that dwell in the pantheon of Super Bowl lore. The 1999 commercial "Paper or Plastic" told the tale of two college-age men buying beer with limited funds, unable to choose between essentials, namely toilet paper or Bud Light. Striking an entirely different mood in the aftermath of Sept. 11, "Applause" showed American soldiers returning to an airport full of welling appreciation.

"I don't think Super Bowl commercials are much different than blockbuster movies," he says. "There's a lot at stake, too many cooks are involved and people are trying really, really hard to entertain. As a result, there are many stink bombs. To put it in Hollywood terms, for every (hit movie like) 'Borat,' there are 10 'Lady in the Waters.'"

Randy Williams contributed to this report.