NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Want a Super Bowl ad? Well, just name your price -- and then see if CBS will go for it.
In a sign of how the current economy is giving rise to different ad-sales methods, CBS is taking an "under the radar" approach to selling ad time for its broadcast of Super Bowl XLIV from Miami, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
Rather than going out to ad buyers and the press with an average price for a 30-second spot, the network's ad-sales staff has instead told buyers it's willing to create customized ad packages around the event, then work together to determine a value.
Sign of the times
Ad buyers suggest the roiled economy is making it tough to sell even big-ticket TV events, such as CBS's Super Bowl telecast and NBC's Winter Olympics broadcast. Even so, CBS has already sold a "handful" of ad slots, one person familiar with negotiations said. Ad-buying executives said their clients are looking for drops in price from last year's game, when NBC sold ad spots for sums ranging between $2.4 million and $3 million (though rivals have whispered the Peacock had to shovel off ad time for much less).
"The tendency in the business is that things are getting done closer to on-air date. You're seeing that in a lot of dayparts and sports is no different," said one media buyer. "Everybody's sales pace has slowed and it's a different dynamic and it's not unique to sports."
One media buyer suggested CBS will seek between $2 million and $3 million for a Super Bowl slot. The network, however, is clearly telling advertisers that pricing will hinge on where the ad runs in the telecast, how much ad time is purchased and whether a marketer is interested in ad opportunities during the network's hours of pre-game coverage, where products and messages could be woven into certain parts of the programming. CBS, of course, will turn away any offer it deems as too low, but the approach shows a surprising level of flexibility in Super Bowl ad-sales tactics.
Each year, the network whose turn it is to broadcast the game typically tips off buyers and media outlets that it will seek an "average" price for a 30-second spot. That price usually increases a few percentage points from year to year.
Fox sought as much as $2.7 million per 30-second ad for its 2008 broadcast, while NBC boldly went out during last year's upfront market and insisted an ad in the game could be worth as much as $3 million. CBS last broadcast the event in 2007, when it sought as much as $2.6 million for a 30-second ad berth.
Avoiding NBC's woes
Whether CBS would have followed this strategy if the economy were booming remains unclear. But the Tiffany network likely wants to avoid making the gaffes NBC made selling Super Bowl XLIII, the first time it had broadcast the game since 1998. When the economy was stable and advertisers had the wind at their backs, NBC was able to brassily assert a Super Bowl ad was worth $3 million per half-minute. Indeed, the network sold at least 30% of its ad inventory in last year's upfront by early June, and had sold more than 80% of its inventory by last September.
Then the economy began to tank, and selling the last portion of Super Bowl inventory proved to be a difficult slog, with NBC having to sell additional ad time to maintain pricing and at the same time placate clients who had already agreed to a $3 million price tag. That direct-response advertiser Cash4Gold.com joined the ranks of Super Bowl advertisers in 2009 was considered very telling, as was PepsiCo's purchase of additional time in the game just days before broadcast.
CBS's strategy would likely pay off if the economy improves between now and early next year. After all, if the network were to name a price in public now, it might undercut its ability to ask for greater sums later on. No matter what price is agreed upon behind closed doors, advertisers continue to seek discounts and bargains. And CBS does have experience selling the game in a tough year, having hosted the big game in 2001. (It also aired the Super Bowl in 2004, when it commanded an average of $2.25 million for a 30-second spot.)
Already Anheuser-Busch InBev is locked into a multiyear deal to advertise in the Super Bowl, which means viewers can probably expect to see the usual coterie of ads for Bud Light and Budweiser. But last year, NBC found that old reliables, such as General Motors Corp. and Fed Ex, left the field due to economic concerns, leaving room for newcomers such as Denny's and Teleflora. So CBS may find itself facing a group of advertisers with smaller budgets than the heavyweights who once dominated the game.
One other veteran Super Bowl advertiser has already signaled its interest in appearing in the event. Online-jobs site CareerBuilder.com, which used independent agency Wieden & Kennedy in 2009, is planning to advertise in the game, said a company spokeswoman, as part of an ongoing strategy that includes a consumer contest. Last year, the jobs site had one 60-second ad in the third quarter of the game. (Here's a complete list of last year's Super Bowl advertisers.)