CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Millions of Super Bowl viewers who read about Miller High Life's one-second Super Bowl ads but didn't see them during the game probably assumed they simply missed them because they were grabbing a beer in the bathroom -- or blinking.
But the real reason many viewers -- including those in major markets such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York -- missed the fleeting image of Miller spokesman Windell Middlebrooks quickly shouting "High Life" is because NBC, which aired the game Feb. 1, issued a directive to its owned-and-operated station affiliates not to run the local spots from the value-oriented beer brand.
While Anheuser-Busch is the official malt-beverage sponsor of the Super Bowl, and the only brewer allowed to buy national ads during the game, A-B's deal with the National Football League has not traditionally prevented other brewers from buying airtime on local affiliates during the game.
Super Bowl viewers in New York and Chicago, for instance, saw Heineken's new ad campaign, featuring actor John Turturro, airing during the broadcast. And Miller and Coors have often placed spot buys during the game in recent years. So, clearly, the issue wasn't with beer advertising so much as with Miller's particular beer advertisement.
Was A-B perhaps throwing its weight around to keep a rival's gibes off a broadcast it has paid dearly to dominate for decades? Keith Levy, A-B's VP-marketing, said the No. 1 brewer did not ask NBC to pull Miller's ads. He did leave open the possibility, however, that NBC was watching A-B's back without being asked. "We made no call to NBC," he said. "But, as the official [malt-beverage] sponsor, we do expect a certain level of protection."
It's also possible, of course, that NBC was protecting itself.
Available Super Bowl ad inventory lingered later than usual this year, in part because some marketers fretted about the appearance of shelling out $100,000 per second for ads during such hard times. Those fears also contributed to a perceptible decline in efforts to hype Super Bowl ads in the weeks leading up to the game, a practice that had generated a virtual avalanche of competing press releases in prior years.
Miller's ads, which mocked such spending as an out-of-touch extravagance, were designed to exacerbate that perception -- at A-B's expense. As the introduction on a Miller website designed to tout the blink ads put it: "Paying $3 million for a 30-second commercial makes as much sense as putting sauerkraut on a doughnut. Actually, even that makes more sense."
And, of course, that PR splash made by Miller's announcement that it intended to run the one-second ads -- which were covered in papers all over the country -- made the point widely long before the game even started. The ad plans, which were said to include major markets, drew hefty coverage in newspapers throughout the country, including a feature story in the country's largest-circulation newspaper, USA Today.
Not having the ads run in the largest markets likely means Miller got the press coverage the ads were surely designed to spark for much less than it intended to spend.
"It's clear that no matter who or what drove this decision [to not run the spots], given the excitement the ad generated, that we got more than $3 million worth of exposure," said a Miller spokesman.
A spokesman for the Peacock network said it "was an NBC decision" and that the network received absolutely no pressure from A-B to prevent the Miller one-second spots from airing.