Super Bowl commercials not high scorers this year

Olympics, weak economy, public mood puncture big-bucks hype - maybe the fun.

In the week before the Super Bowl, two topics usually dominate the news: Which team will win, and what fun we'll have watching the ads.

But as Sunday's NFL finale between the New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams draws near, the usual buzz about commercials is more muted. Stories about ads featuring cat herders and sock puppets - previous bowl-ad headliners - have been replaced by reports of dwindling ad dollars and the continuing effort to gauge the public mood.

Since Sept. 11, advertisers and their agencies have been trying to figure out how to approach Americans and with what message: Patriotism? Humor? Nostalgia? Now they are testing the water with themes some ad executives say were on the upswing among Americans even before the collapse of the World Trade Center: feeling good, family and relationships, and simpler lifestyles.

"In many cases, what 9/11 has done is accelerate trends that were there on 9/10," says David Verklin, CEO of Carat North America, a New York media planning and buying firm.

Those trends will take shape on Sunday when Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales clip-clop over bucolic countrysides and Britney Spears bops through a medley of favorite Pepsi jingles.

Humor tried-and-true

Though the content of many ads is kept secret until the broadcast, classic humor is also expected, as advertisers stick to what they know works with game viewers, say ad executives.

"I think you'll see advertisers trying to be funny but a little more meaningful this year, to be respectful of the mood of the country," says Francis Kelly, president of ad agency Arnold Worldwide in Boston.

Noticeably absent will be the flashiness and in-your-face-attitude from recent years, when commercials that had little to do with what they were selling - like those from dotcoms - were common. Instead, this year's roster will include ads that reflect the country's new appreciation for leaders and government. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani will make an appearance to thank Americans for their support of New York in a spot sponsored by the online career service Monster.com.

And, in another unusual move, the White House Office on Drug Control Policy is reportedly paying around $1.5 million for an ad -the most the government has ever paid for an ad on a single event, says Kelly O'Dea, president of ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide. "Who'd have ever thought that you would see the government buying some spots on the Super Bowl," he says.

It's good news for host network Fox, which is having a tough time selling all the commercial spots this year. Working against it are its proximity to the Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 8, the weak economy, and the constricted ad market.

Previous Super Bowl advertisers - like Electronic Data Systems, the high-tech company responsible for the cat herder spot - are opting for the Olympic Games over the football championship because they offer a broader audience and more opportunities to reach it.

"If you're a big brand marketer and you're not in the Super Bowl, you're very likely in the Olympics, because these two events reach far more people than any programming of the year," says Mr. Kelly.

A commercial on the Super Bowl can reach 50 percent of American householdsin one sitting, and a campaign over the two weeks of the Olympics can reach90 percent of American homes, he says. That compares with the 15 percent to 20 percent of the country reached by an episode of a top-rated drama like "ER" or "CSI."

Those advertisers returning to the Super Bowl say the price is right. Rates have dropped for a second year in a row to a reported average of $1.9 million for a 30-second spot.

"It's a little bit more economical this year," chuckles Mark Major, a spokesman for Levi Strauss & Co, which let viewers vote online for the jean ad that will air on Sunday.

The Super Bowl ads will not feature patriotism that is quite as overt as it was in the early fall, predict observers.

But in keeping with trends toward using music to evoke times past and a sense of heritage, they will draw on the likes of Led Zeppelin (to hawk Cadillacs) and The Beatles' "Taxman" (to sell the services of H&R Block), and the pop stylings of Ms. Spears.

Despite Americans' desire for comfort and familiarity, some ad executives say that it may take time before the real effects of Sept. 11 on people's lifestyle is known.

Right after the attacks, 62 percent of Americans said they were seriously rethinking their priorities, according to research done by Mullen, an ad agency in Wenham, Mass.

Two months later that figure had dropped to 45 percent, but it still indicates that half the country is rethinking how it feels about family, careers, and what brings it pleasure, notes Ted Nelson, a managing partner at Mullen.

"In the next 18 months to three years, I think we're going to [see] some real shifts with respect to priorities," he says.

Sober perspective

On a small scale, one sign may be the lack of interest in usually hot topics like Super Bowl ads.

At the Smeal College of Business at Penn State, students usually pepper marketing instructor Andrew Bergstein with questions about the commercials in the days before the big game. But that was before finding a job and the country's safety became major issues.

"Usually by now there's all kind of talk," says Mr. Bergstein.

Instead, he explains, "I'm the only one who's brought it up."

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