For most ad rookies, the Super Bowl's a losing game


If your business has $3.8 million to spare and a burning desire to advertise on the Super Bowl, you’re out of luck. Advertising availabilities are all sold out.

But maybe that means you’re in luck.

Because, according to a January 22 MediaPost report, the Super Bowl’s not kind to first-time advertisers, most of whom never return for a second time.

Red Army tactics

Smart advertisers follow the Red Army’s doctrine for land warfare: Reinforce victory, not defeat. (This is a more aggressive version of the First Law of Holes.)

Marketers who know what they’re doing carefully monitor results so they can avoid wasting money by repeating costly mistakes. So we can reasonably infer that if an advertiser never comes back for a second year on the Super Bowl, it’s because the first year’s buy didn’t work.

That, however, doesn’t keep new ones from trying.

The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history

When Barry Janoff writes at MediaPost that “a Super Bowl spot does not guarantee success,” history suggests he’s making a big understatement.

Super Bowl XXIV in 2000 is infamously known as the “Dot.Com Super Bowl” due to the plethora of Internet-based companies — the majority of which were rookie one-hit wonders — that advertised during the game. The average going price of $1.1 million helped to break the bank of such companies as,,,, and (To be fair, E-Trade, WebMD and Monster/HotJobs survived.)

That’s two Super Bowl failures for every success – not the best of odds. But that doesn’t stop first-timers from trying to beat them.

In 2008, when Super Bowl air time averaged a paltry $2.7 million, six rookies accounted for 18 percent of all ad dollars.

Last year, according to Kantar Media, the number of first-timers jumped to ten, representing 30 percent of all advertising at $3.5 million a pop.

Among others, Dannon, Honda, Second Story Softwear and TaxAct filing software – which likened its user experience to urinating in a pool people were swimming in – won’t be back.

Lexus and Century 21 will (more about the latter shortly).

The triumph of hope over experience?

Undaunted by the historical failure rate, eight brands will make their Super Bowl advertising debuts this year:

  • Unilever’s Axe – Their very precisely and specifically defined strategy is  “taking our interaction with our fans to new heights,” according to brand director Gaston Vaneri.
  • Gildan Activewear
  • SodaStream, probably because people drink lots of sodas watching the game, will be taking on giants Coke and Pepsi. “Our new commercial highlights the revolutionary benefits of our technology, confronting the conventional and arguably outdated beverage industry by showing people that there is a smarter way to enjoy soda,” CEO Daniel Birnbaum says.
  • Wonderful Pistachios, probably because people eat lots of salty snacks watching the game, will will be taking on Doritos with Korean gangnam rapper Psy in a green suit showing how to open pistachio shells.
  • Time Warner Cablewill use actors from AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to put some new life into cable subscriptions.
  • Oreo Cookies is showcasing its hundredth anniversary this year.
  • Milk Processor Education Programwould do great to run right after the Oreos spot.
  • MiO Fit This is a line extension of what Kraftco calls a liquid water enhancer and what I grew up calling syrup. What makes it “Fit,” in addition to the absence of calories, is the addition of electrolytes to its regular formulation. Their commercial will show comedian Tracy Morgan and things that have changed in America, likening them to what Kraft VP Refreshment Beverages Doug Weekes calls “a world of change for sports drinks.”

Quantity has a quality all its own

Especially for small but nationally-distributed brands, one :30 on the Super Bowl is the marketing equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, because the ad winners outgun them in in two important quantities – budget and frequency.

Budget because that gets your brand awareness. And frequency because consumers rarely notice your commercial the first time – or maybe even the tenth.

Even though SodaStream, for example, plans on “follow-up commercials and other integrated marketing activities,” according to Birnbaum, they need to “significantly increase our market penetration” – especially because they’re up against Coke ($80 million on Super Bowl broadcasts) and Pepsi’s ($182 million over the past ten years) spending on the Super Bowl alone.

Even with the Super Bowl’s huge audience – a record 111.1 million last year – running once is almost never enough.

But there are exceptions (though not many).

Like Century 21, on both counts. For one thing, they weren’t unknown underdogs. According to CMO Bev Thorne, their brand awareness was 95 percent – before the game. What’s more, their research found, women in the television audience watched the commercials the way their husbands watched the game – with full attention (and vice versa). Their web traffic and sales went up by double-digit percentages, so they’ll be back this year.

Oreo, too, will probably do well, because everyone knows what Oreos are and already likes them.

What’s more important?

Two centuries ago, Napoleon and Voltaire disputed whom the fortunes of war favored – big battalions or smaller battalions that shoot straighter.

Considering the stakes in the Super Bowl advertising gamble, it helps a lot to be both.

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