NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When people recall the advertising in Super Bowl XLIII, they'll no doubt think of PepsiCo's five and a half minutes of commercials; the entrance of a direct-response advertiser, Cash4Gold; and a Doritos commercial made by two average guys that proved more popular than those made by professional admen. But one marketer managed to dominate the game in a way no paying marketer could: NBC.
NBC Universal used the annual event -- which it aired for the first time since 1998 -- to play up anything and everything in its corporate family. The network, beset by lackluster performance for several seasons, was obviously eager to host the Bowl this year. And despite the recession, it managed to sell out its entire in-game ad inventory, notching $206 million, up from the $186.3 million sold by News Corp.'s Fox for the 2008 game, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Rivals and media buyers talked about some of the spots in the fourth quarter being heavily discounted, however, and also pointed out that the numbers owe something to creative packaging of different properties offered to marketers to justify the as-high-as-$3-million price tag for a 30-second spot in the game.
The ratings were also a bonanza: Revised estimates from Nielsen show that Super Bowl XLIII had an average viewership of 98.7 million, up from a record-setting Super Bowl XLII, which averaged 97.5 million.
What few dispute is that NBC seized on the opportunities presented by the big game from a marketing standpoint. The Peacock took advantage of the gathering of marketing and media-agency execs in Florida for the game by holding a "Super Front" in Orlando. NBC feted a crowd that attendees report numbered between 400 and 500, giving them some hints of wha`t would air in the fall.
Mike Pilot, president-sales and marketing, NBC Universal -- along with Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, and Angela Bromstad, president of prime-time entertainment, NBC and Universal Media Studios -- put a spotlight on "Kings" and "Southland," both slated to make their debuts later this year, as well as new pilots slated for September. Jay Leno held forth on his prime-time 10 p.m. talk show, set to launch in the fall.
That was only the start. NBC used its pre-game show to feature talent from across its properties: Maria Bartiromo from CNBC, Keith Olberman from MSNBC, the "Top Chef" cast from Bravo and Matt Lauer of "Today" interviewing President Barack Obama.
During the game, the ad roster included many NBC-related entities. Parent company General Electric ran two spots during the game, and others came from Hulu, the online-video site jointly owned by News Corp.; NBC Universal's Universal Pictures; and NBC Universal's Universal Orlando resort. NBC late-night host Conan O'Brien even appeared in an ad for Bud Light, while "30 Rock" star Alec Baldwin acted as pitchman in Hulu's commercial.
NBC also captured attention with show promos that looked very little like networks' usual "Here's a clip; see it Tuesday" stuff. According to TNS, NBC aired 7 minutes, 10 seconds of network promotional material and 38 minutes of brand advertising. That marks a slight decrease from the 7 minutes, 55 seconds of promo material and 36 minutes, 35 seconds of brand advertising Fox ran in 2008's game. The record for promotional material in recent years is 9 minutes, 35 seconds in 2007 by CBS.
NBC's promos included talent from the network's Monday-night programs singing the old chestnut "Feeling All Right"; a visit to an office where people are suffering from "LMAO" or "laughing my ass off" because of the network's Thursday-night comedies; and the cast of "Heroes" using their superpowers in a football game.
"I never understood this second-class-citizenship perception between advertising and promos. It's all meant to sell, right?" said Adam Stotsky, president-marketing, NBC Entertainment, who once worked for the Fallon ad agency. "There are different ways above and beyond using clips of the shows," he said. "The mission, the challenge that is sent out to my team, was: How do you make work that's worth this unrivaled environment, when the best of the best is going to be showcased?"
Super Bowl spotlight isn't all good for Cash4Gold
Is it possible for a Super Bowl ad to be too successful? While the question might seem ridiculous, especially during a recession, Cash4Gold's new-found celebrity may be coming back to bite it.
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But the ad has also prompted a backlash. Articles in places such as the Los Angeles Times have included complaints from angry customers who claim the company has seriously undervalued their jewelry.
A testimonial posted on Complaints Board and the Consumerist from someone claiming to be a former Cash4Gold employee detailed the company's practices: "Your jewelry gets appraised by hand, a magnifying glass, a plastic container, a small weight pad and a bottle of orangish fluid. Not million-dollar equipment or specially trained jewelry experts." And for consumers who call in upset about what they deem to be lowball offers: "We already know what you are calling about. The first thing a rep will ask you is 'How much were you expecting to get back?' This way we can know how much to 'bonus' you."
Cash4Gold did not return calls before press time.
Dean Crutchfield, an independent brand consultant, said, "It was great advertising, and we all knew it stood out. But there's an old adage: There's one very powerful way to show a crap product, and that's great advertising."
Mr. Crutchfield said the long-term impact will depend on the company's response. "They seem to have set themselves a low standard and continue to dig, which is a sign of the direction they might be going in," he said, adding that he suggested the company respond quickly. "Bad news isn't like bad wine; it doesn't improve with age."
-- Michael Bush