Zombies take a bite out of Super Bowl ad costs


There’s good reason to advertise on the Super Bowl; it sends your message to broadcast television’s largest, and most male, audience.

There’s also good reason not to.

For one thing, it’s expensive: a record $3.8 million for 30 seconds – and that’s just for the air time.

For another, it’s national. So if your distribution isn’t, you’re paying to reach consumers who can’t possibly buy from you.

That’s why, as Advertising Age reports today, Time Warner Cable is trying something different – an end run with zombies.

A zombie end run

Characters from AMC’s “The Walking Dead” will invade the Super Bowl broadcast – though technically not the game itself, so all the players are safe from becoming zombie fodder.

Instead, Time Warner’s buying air time in local commercial breaks on CBS affiliates in 44 markets to promote shows their cable system carries. (Richmond, whose cable operators are Comcast and Verizon FIOS, isn’t one of them.)

Time Warner EVP and CMO-residential services Jeffrey Hirsch “declined to specify” to Ad Age

which “Walking Dead” characters would appear in the new ads, which he said contained “original content.” Nor would he say whether zombies would rise in the scene. But some clues have surfaced in social media. On Twitter, actor Norman Reedus, who plays “Darryl” on the “The Walking Dead,” crowed about his participation in what he called a “Super Bowl commercial”

One commercial, promoting “Homeland” on the cable system and released in September, is visible on YouTube.

An end run around geography

This isn’t a new media-buying strategy. In fact, it isn’t even new to Time Warner, who did it last year.

“We’re not a national footprint, so we’ve gone out and bought CBS spots in all our markets,” Hirsch explained. “We’ve cobbled together a ‘national’ Super Bowl reach for our footprint.”

He’s not alone.

As noted here three years ago, when CBS was also airing the Super Bowl,

in addition to national commercial time, the network (this year, CBS) also allocates a certain number of game-time minutes to local affiliates (in Richmond, Channel 6) to sell. While local sponsors buy many of these availablilites, national brands also snap them up – sometimes for traditional reasons and sometimes for new, recession-related, ones.

Large regional advertisers, for example, have historically bought Super Bowl time locally, to match their actual distribution geography and avoid wasting advertising dollars on markets where they don’t do business.

An end run around big budgets

Spot air time pricing varies by local market and varies through negotiation, so it’s hard to tell how much Time Warner will be paying for each 30 seconds.

One thing’s for certain, though – it’ll be less than $3.8 million.

But total cost isn’t the only dollars-and-cents reason for buying spot time. Nor is the efficiency of avoiding waste audience.

It’s also the economy, stupid.

“Large regional advertisers,” we noted,

have historically bought Super Bowl time locally, to match their actual distribution geography and avoid wasting advertising dollars on markets where they don’t do business. But the recession has brought [even] advertisers of truly national scope into the game for entirely different reasons.

[M]any national advertisers are still finding the $2.95 million [now $3.8 million] for 30 seconds…no bargain in a deep recession. So they’re performing triage. They’re sorting out markets where they’ll do well without Super Bowl advertising, markets where they’re doing so poorly that Super Bowl advertising won’t help, and markets where being on the Super Bowl can make a difference – and making spot buys of that local time to make a difference in that last group of markets, at much lower total media outlay than the national rates.

An end run around network no-nos

Networks can be a bit touchy about whose advertising they run. Sometimes it’s because of the product, such as hard liquor. Sometimes it’s because of exclusivity deals, such as the one CBS has with Budweiser for all Super Bowl advertising.

For example,

In 2001, Diageo worked around a CBS ban on hard-liquor advertising as well as Anheuser-Busch’s exclusive to advertise malt-based beverages in the game, snapping up so-called “spot” inventory from local stations airing the game to promote Smirnoff Ice.

And sometimes it’s because they don’t want to air commercials from rival media competing for their viewers.

Local stations are often laxer about these strictures than the networks they’re affiliated with. But that’s not all Time Warner’s counting on.

While their commercials will promote individual shows they carry, none will have a tune-in call to action. Instead, each will serve as an example of what viewers can see by signing up for complete Time Warner service – which, incidentally, includes CBS stations and  CBS division Showtime.

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