Worryingly from the point of view of the TV networks -- which expect to sell out the Bowl at top rates -- the field of potential marketers willing to throw millions at the game seems to have narrowed in recent years, a perception that's becoming a reality as many major package-goods players stay away this year. (Yes, really, there won't even be a terrible Gillette commercial.)
Today their approach often involves building their own buzz as part of integrated campaigns rather than standing on the shoulders of the NFL's giants.
Unilever's Dove, which ran a sentimental 45-second ad from its "Campaign for Real Beauty" last year, is instead developing a consumer-generated ad for Dove Cream Oil body wash that will run during the Academy Awards. Unilever's Degree, which has advertised on the Super Bowl each of the past two years, instead broke a TV and original webisode campaign linked to Fox's "24" as its major first-half initiative.
"The Super Bowl is a great marketing vehicle. There's no doubt about it," said Stacie Bright, senior marketing communications director at Unilever. But, she said, "the entire 360-degree programs" helped dictate placement of messages for Dove and Degree this year.
Microsoft, too, in introducing its Vista operating system with a $500 million blitz, is passing up the biggest launching pad of all. "We think we have a product and a message that stands alone," said John B. Williams, general manager-Windows global communications. "Borrowed interest is always something you look at, but [our marketing] will give us more pop, in our opinion, than going into a Super Bowl environment."
P&G's Gillette, a Super Bowl regular that has run ads in two of the past three years, is also staying on the sidelines. But a person close to the company said the brand is planning to announce a major global sports-marketing initiative early next month. A spokesman declined to comment. Gillette's Fusion doesn't have a major U.S. men's product launch this year like it had last year, and Super Bowl ads for the Fusion razor were roundly panned by pundits and bloggers last year.
But it's doubtful that creative embarrassment is what's keeping P&G out. Its Old Spice brand has received generally strong reviews from bloggers and critics for a new campaign from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. The campaign broke during the NFL playoffs, yet still produced a stronger traffic bump to the brand's website, as measured by Alexa.com, than Degree's 2005 Super Bowl ad (though still somewhat below the bump Degree got from its 2006 ad).
"Simply put, we're looking to optimize the intro of the new campaign, and the Super Bowl was not part of the strategy," a P&G spokesman said in an e-mail.
Even when a brand has a strong commercial or campaign, the reality of the Super Bowl is that almost every ad shown is new, and the competition for attention is fierce, said Larry Koffler, who heads the Dove account for independent PR shop Edelman. "We would not recommend a spot for the Super Bowl just for the reach from a pure value perspective," Mr. Koffler said. "It works if it's integrated [with other things]. With simply one ad, even with the built-in mechanism for pre- and post-game publicity, it really isn't enough."
Dove's Super Bowl effort last year did help generate considerable buzz. More than three-quarters of the 400 million consumer impressions of the ad came either before or after it made its single appearance on the Super Bowl last year. But much of that buzz came from publicity around the issue of girls' self esteem, including a post-game "Oprah" linked to the ad and the subject.
And Dove got almost equal consumer response, as measured by visits to CampaignforRealBeauty.com, to a far less expensive outdoor campaign that ran in 2005 in a handful of U.S. cities and a considerably larger consumer online response in 2006 to its viral "Dove Evolution" film, which had no media outlay at all.
Not the right environment
The Super Bowl really isn't the right environment for Dove, said Robert Passikoff, president of the New York consulting firm Brand Keys.
Sure, the Super Bowl now draws roughly equal numbers of women and men. And in an age of fragmentation, it offers a rare opportunity to hit almost all of a brand's consumer base at a time when ads are most likely to be closely watched.
But Brand Key's Super Bowl Engagement Survey of 2,500 consumers predicts such traditional Bowl advertisers as Budweiser, Frito-Lay and Pepsi, as well as newcomer Coke, will record the highest consumer engagement with their brand messages. Dove, by contrast, scored quite low last year on consumer engagement with its brand message.
In general, brands that do best on the Super Bowl fit the milieu surrounding the game: Beer, snacks, soft drinks and sporting-goods retailers all will do well, Mr. Passikoff said.
Cadillac's predicted brand-engagement ROI is low during the game but soars in post-game coverage, which is about winners and celebrations-themes that mesh with a luxury-car brand, Mr. Passikoff said.
By contrast, Mr. Passikoff believes Dove's message will resonate much better during the Academy Awards, a glamour event where beauty brands thrive. Part of that move is opportunity as well: P&G blocked Dove from the show for decades by exercising its right of first refusal under its relationship with ABC, according to people familiar with the situation.