The women are watching

With more female viewers than the Academy Awards, this Sunday's Super Bowl will air ads that cater to broader interests.

If you believe the twangy beer jingle, a lot of men like football on TV, shots of Gina Lee - and twins.

In at least one of those supposed preferences - televised football - men are increasingly being joined by women. Consider:

• An ESPN poll three years ago revealed that women who watched TV sports favored NFL games above all other sports broadcasts.

• In 2002, a survey by Scarborough Sports Marketing, in New York, estimated that 50 million US women avidly followed professional sports - and confirmed pro football's top ranking.

• When last year's Super Bowl rolled around, nearly 40 million women tuned in, says Andrew Rohm, a professor of marketing at Boston's Northeastern University, "which is 10 million more than turned on the Academy Awards."

So if you fire up the television for Sunday's big game, will the commercial breaks offer signs of bold new thinking meant to capitalize on those numbers?

Well, maybe. Advertisers have been waking up - slowly - to this long-dawning shift in viewer demographics, experts say, adopting creative approaches they think will appeal to both sexes. And companies are beginning to use football games to push products that research shows are more commonly bought by women. But many firms and their ad agencies have been reluctant to let go of the "regular guy" imagery that football has traditionally evoked. And even with 150 million sets of eyes ready to watch the Super Bowl, companies see more cost- efficient ways of reaching women than spending $2.3 million for a 30-second spot.

It's clearly a high-stakes buy. The Super Bowl may crown a pigskin champ, but it also traditionally showcases the ad world's premium pitches, making the commercials as great a draw as the competition.

"It's the only broadcast event that exists where you can capture so many people at the same time," says David Blum, senior vice president at Eisner Communications in Baltimore, which released a survey last week on Super Bowl ads.

"There's been a shift away, over the years, from a few products that would tend to be more male- dominated in tone and approach," he says. You'll still see ads for Gillette razors and Viagra. But rounding out the mix now are "broad-based products, soft drinks, snack-food products," adds Mr. Blum. "There are some car manufacturers, movie studios."

The substories of Super Bowl advertising this year include politics (CBS's refusal to accept an anti-Bush ad from Moveon.org) and advertising history (the 20th anniversary of Apple's revolutionary computer ad). A somewhat quieter trend is an evolution toward more universally appealing ads.

Procter & Gamble will advertise Charmin in Sunday's Super Bowl. That could represent a more typical game-time advertisement, going forward, than the manly old Master Lock spot that had a rifle bullet failing to break a padlock, says Blum, who has tracked Super Bowl marketing since 1988.

"They're trying to straddle the fence and not alienate women," adds Professor Rohm. "Women tend to be more highly involved with commercials [than men] and typically in a Super Bowl, because of the large audience, you're less apt to have more of the messages that employ females as sex symbols."

Not that it's lights out for those swimsuit-wearing spokesmodels, several experts agree. It's tough to reach both Venus and Mars, and the latter may just be easier to please.

"A lot of [last year's] ads not only were oblivious to women watching, but were actively offensive to women watching," says Martha Barletta, founder and president of the Chicago consulting firm TrendSight Group, which advises major corporations on how better to communicate with women. "That doesn't seem like a smart idea when women are the majority buyers in almost every category."

The gender differences go beyond what passes for funny. Ms. Barletta recalls a "boys and their noises" truck commercial from last year's game that featured burping.

"Men's decisionmaking process is so different from [that of] women," she adds. "Men respond better to a real headline approach - get in, get out, get on with it.... Women prefer to have more to work with; they tend to make decisions more in context, to be more comprehensive and multilateral in their decisionmaking."

Women buy 68 percent of all new cars, according to Barletta, and 65 percent of tires. Yet she calls Detroit "especially bad" at speaking to women. The points they make - about torque and horsepower - miss the mark. "Women want to know what it does for them," she says. "It has to be about people."

In terms of approach, Barletta says, there are creative ways to appeal to men and women alike. She cites last year's football-playing Clydesdales, attended by a zebra referee, in one beverage ad.

But in terms of products, she concedes, there are reasons women seem to be getting short shrift. "If your primary target is women - as with shampoo or lipstick or hair care - there are ways to reach 37 million women without paying $2.3 million for each 30-second spot."

"The Super Bowl is something of a shotgun approach," agrees Northeastern's Rohm. "There are other programs, like 'Friends,' or some of the reality shows, that are much more efficient media buys on a cost-per-thousand basis."

Blum, too, notes the allure to advertisers of reality programming, though he argues that many viewers count the Super Bowl, an unscripted drama, as a reality show in itself. He's interested to see how much of the Super Bowl audience can be retained by "Survivor: All Stars," which airs after the game.

Still, such short-run series come and go, he says. Cable offerings change. So advertisers across the spectrum would do well to monitor that shifting Super Bowl audience - and learn to mine it in ways that are more inclusive.

"The only thing that it seems you can really count on, year after year," he says, "are all those viewers that are going to tune in on Super Sunday."

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