Market Column



All over Los Angeles this Sunday thousands of people, many of whom don’t know a field goal from a Field poll, will gather around their television sets for America’s favorite annual grudge match: Bud vs. Bud Light.

Er, actually Super Bowl XXXI will pit the New England Teapartygoers against the, um … Isn’t the other team from Wisconsin or something?

Well, it hardly matters, because as we all know, the real reason people watch the Super Bowl is for the commercials.

And although analysts are predicting unusually low viewership for this year’s contest, the price of those commercials continues to break records.

Fox Broadcasting Co., which for the first time in its short history will be airing the Super Bowl this year, announced in early January that it had filled all 58 30-second national commercial slots for the Jan. 26 game. They cost $1.2 million apiece, which is about $100,000 more than last year.

One would think this escalation might be causing some gnashing of teeth at the marketing departments of such perennial Super Bowl sponsors as Anheuser-Busch Co., AT & T; and General Motors Corp.

The New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers are two teams in comparatively small television markets, and football ratings in general have been dropping off in recent months, which means that Super Bowl advertisers are probably buying considerably fewer eyeballs per dollar than last year.

Media buyers estimate this year’s game will generate a rating between 41 and 43 (meaning 41 percent to 43 percent of U.S. television-owning households will tune in), compared to a 46.1 rating last year the game’s best rating since 1986.

On most national television programs, the networks offer “make good” contracts to advertisers meaning that if a show fails to generate the projected rating, the advertisers get a rebate after the fact.

But on big “event” programs like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, there are no make good contracts. You pay your money and you take your chances when you bet marketing dollars on the Super Bowl.

Does this bother the advertisers, or their agencies?

“I think the answer is, there are no guarantees in life,” says Bob Kuperman, CEO of Venice-based TBWA Chiat/Day Inc., which is placing spots in the Super Bowl this year for client Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A.

During the game, watch for Chiat/Day’s 60-second sequel to its well-known Nissan “Toys” commercial, in which a doll bearing a strong resemblance to G.I. Joe takes another doll looking supiciously like Barbie out for a cruise in his toy Nissan sports car.

Media buyers also project a certain nonchalance about the ratings performance of this year’s Super Bowl, saying you can’t look at it with the same dollars-to-ratings formula used on other types of TV buys.

“There’s a certain prestigious rub-off that comes from being a sponsor of the Super Bowl,” says William Croasdale, president of national broadcast in the West Hollywood office of Western International Media Corp. “It’s an aura.”

Andrew Butcher, chairman and CEO of Century City-based media buying firm International Communications Group Inc., agrees that ratings sometimes take a back seat to prestige.

“I mean, local newspapers write reviews on the commercials in the Super Bowl. Where else do you see that?” Butcher says.

Five L.A. County-based companies three movie studios and the American divisions of two Japanese automakers are running national spots during Sunday’s game. Besides Gardena-based Nissan, they are Torrance-based American Honda Motor Co. Inc., West L.A.-based 20th Century Fox, Hollywood-based Paramount Pictures and Santa Monica-based Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

And speaking of sports…

Does image advertising work with sports franchises?

The Los Angeles Kings conducted an experiment on that issue in September when they launched a series of radio, print and outdoor ads designed by Santa Monica-based Rubin Postaer and Associates.

The $1 million “Serious Hockey” campaign was a somewhat unusual move for a professional sports team, because they usually spend their marketing dollars promoting individual games or players.

The Kings were out simply to raise the profile of the team in Los Angeles by positioning the Great Western Forum as a place to get away from all the other nonsense characterizing life in L.A. for some good ol’ lip-busting, nose-crunching fun.

Did it work? In terms of boosting attendance at Kings games, not really.

Home game attendance is averaging 12,200 per night so far this season, compared with an average of 13,100 at this time last year, according to John Cimperman, vice president of marketing and communications with the franchise.

Still, the poor attendance probably has a lot more to do with the Kings’ performance than the ad campaign. The team had 16 wins and 23 losses as of last week.

“The image-building campaign is not being judged on ticket sales,” Cimperman says. “We think it was a great success.”

Cimperman believes the “Serious Hockey” tagline has had a major impact in the market. As proof, he cites conversations between fans that he has overheard in the stands during games.

“If we’re not playing well, there are people in the stands saying, ‘That seriously bleeps’ ” Cimperman says. “On the other hand, if it’s obvious that the team is really playing hard, I’ve heard people say, ‘Now that’s serious hockey.’ ”

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