Dotcoms sweep Super Bowl ads with Web-style wit

When Americans sit down with their chips and dips to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, they'll notice two things about the game: Tennessee has a football team, and many advertisers have names that end in dotcom.

At least a dozen Web sites - with ads featuring everything from angry brides to talking sock puppets - will vie for viewer attention during what's been dubbed "the Dotcom Bowl." For the first time, the half-time show will even be sponsored by a dotcom - E*Trade Group.

Last year, only three Web sites advertised during the game. This year, the sites include Pets.com, Britannica.com, OurBeginning.com - and two from last year, Monster.com and HotJobs.com, both job sites.

Now that 20 percent of the ads are from Web sites, "the most exciting battle is not between the two teams, but between all the dotcom companies," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.

Dotcoms are increasingly using TV as a way to distinguish themselves from competitors and get the attention of Wall Street. Along the way, they are having to learn how to handle increased traffic after an ad runs and how to create a campaign that leaves people knowing what the site is actually about. Many consumers still can't distinguish one dotcom ad from another.

But the Super Bowl is too tempting to pass up for some dotcoms who don't have much time to generate an impression if they want to stay afloat in the fast-paced Internet world. Super Bowl advertising hooks sites up with more than 100 million viewers, quicker than a quarterback's pass.

"Dotcoms have to convince investors that in a short period of time they can achieve their business goals. What better way than overnight awareness?" says Joe Mandese, editor of The Myers Report, a daily media industry newsletter.

Last year, Monster.com ran an ad at 7 p.m. By 7:02, its traffic had increased six fold, according to Jeff Taylor, the company's president. He says people can instantly respond to Web-site ads, unlike soda ads, which require a trip to the store. He calls the Super Bowl "the ultimate consumer vehicle."

"It's the only time people are really looking forward to the commercials," says Michael Budowski, head of OurBeginning.-com, a nine-month-old site specializing in stationery that is making its TV debut at the Super Bowl. "We felt it was the quickest way to shorten our branding curve."

Dotcoms paid ABC a sky-high rate of $2.2 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, up from 1999's average of $1.6 million. Last year, Monster and HotJobs saw their businesses take off after they bought Super Bowl time.

"As it turns out, it was the best investment of my life, but it was hard to call then," says HotJobs chief Richard Johnson, whose company was the smallest startup ever to advertise during the Super Bowl. It struggled to pay for the purchase and production of its ad - which took more than half its 1998 revenue.

"We went from being a small dotcom to being a brand overnight," says Mr. Johnson, who attributes his company's ability to easily raise money in 1999 directly to its Super Bowl ad.

But not all observers are convinced the successes of last year will be repeated in 2000.

"We'll find out if the Super Bowl audience really does have the capacity to absorb 10 or 12 new brands," says Edward Boches, chief creative officer at Mullen, an advertising agency in Wenham, Mass. Mullen handles both Monster.com and Oxygen Media, another Super Bowl advertiser whose Web site and new cable network for women are the latest Oprah Winfrey enterprise.

It's a question a few dotcoms may have asked since signing up. Several have reportedly backed out. One, Angeltips.com, left earlier this month because it had new partners and its site wouldn't be ready to include them in time for the game - and also because the pack had grown so large. It will spread its ad dollars out over the year at ABC instead.

Mullen has tried to create commercials that distinguish its clients from typical dotcoms, which often try to achieve brand recognition with ads that rely on edgy, over-the-top humor - "dotcomedy" - that doesn't say enough about the company, Mr. Boches says.

As for Monster's success, Mr. Taylor attributes it to sustained advertising. "You can't just do the Super Bowl and expect everything to be perfect."

Newer sites are also learning that TV can sometimes be too fast a medium. Consider this glitch: What if you invite millions of people to show up and you're not ready? Ten minutes after HotJobs's ad ran last year, people were locked out of its site because the capacity was too great. This year, the company has spared no expense to make sure that doesn't happen again, says George Nassef, HotJobs chief information officer.

Other sites have learned from the experience, too. "I have a better chance of winning the Florida Lottery than our site does of going down during the Super Bowl," says Budowski from OurBeginning. He moved his server to Virginia because Florida, the company's home, could not handle the bandwidth needed.

"We're excited," says Budowski. "We're ready."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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