NEW YORK — They're an odd bunch: The hobbled grandparents fighting over potato chips, the boisterous family building motorcycles, and the heavyset gangster demanding a cream puff.
All are off-field contenders for the other prize up for grabs on Feb. 1 -- best Super Bowl TV ad.
Twenty years ago, Apple Computer rocked the advertising world with an iconic ad to introduce a product called the Macintosh. Since then, the Super Bowl has become the undisputed testing ground for the most ambitious and aggressive ideas in the advertising industry.
The Feb. 1 game between Carolina and New England will be no different. Despite a slumping TV season and questions in some corners over the benefits of network advertising, there's no arguing with the staying power of the Super Bowl as one of the most effective ways of reaching tens of millions of attentive viewers all in one shot.
In fact, viewership of the Super Bowl has been on the rise over the past few years, reaching 88.6 million last year, according to Nielsen Media Research, up from 84.3 million in 2001, the last time CBS had the game. The broadcast rotates among ABC, CBS and Fox under the NFL's $17.6 billion, eight-year TV deal.
"There is nothing else like the Super Bowl. It's watercooler, it's an event," said Donna Wolfe, chief negotiation officer for national broadcast advertising at the Universal McCann ad agency.
"When you talk about regular prime time programming, there are more choices every year," Wolfe said. "It's not that people are watching less television, they have more choices."
On the other hand, the fact that nearly 90 million people are glued to their sets and not only watching the commercials but then critiquing them can have a terrifying effect on marketing executives, who want to make sure their ads are "Super Bowl-worthy."
Viewer polls ranking the ads, such as one done by USA Today, can cause major heartburn for companies betting $2.3 million -- the average cost of a 30-second ad this year -- that their message will be a hit.
"Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and see themselves at the bottom of the survey," says Jason Maltby, who buys TV ad time on behalf of advertisers for Mindshare, a firm owned by WPP.
For veteran advertisers such as brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Cos., producing top-rate commercials for the big game is business as usual, Maltby says. But for first-timers, "there's a lot of pressure on them to make sure their commercial stands up," Maltby says.
That hasn't deterred Staples, which is buying its first Super Bowl ad this year. Its spot depicts a greedy worker named Randy who parcels out office supplies in exchange for bribes of doughnuts and pastries.
A colleague eventually calls his bluff, confronting Randy with a bag of office supplies from Staples and backup from the hulking gangster character Joe Viterelli from "Analyze This." Viterelli's demand to Randy is as menacing as it is unequivocal: "Cream puff."
Staples' marketing chief Shira Goodman says buying a spot made sense since the company is in the middle of a major campaign to refocus its image on convenience. Accordingly, Staples is changing its slogan from "Yeah, We've Got That" to "That Was Easy."
"The time was right for us," Goodman said. "We had a very important message."
Expedia, the online travel site, has also bought its first Super Bowl ad, but like many advertisers the company is keeping its contents secret. Spokesman David Dennis would only say that the spot is similar to its current campaign showing how Expedia can help travelers find the right trip.
America Online, owned by Time Warner, has a wide-ranging $10 million Super Bowl promotion deal that includes three spots, sponsorship of the halftime show, an online poll of the ads and promotions during the NFL postseason. AOL is also sponsoring a half-hour special on the NFL Network that will replay this year's Super Bowl commercials immediately following the game.
"We're a diverse country, and most of the time we're doing different things," says Len Short, head of advertising for AOL. "But once in a while we all do the same thing, and the Super Bowl is one of those events. We want to be there."
For CBS, part of the Viacom media conglomerate, the Super Bowl could prove to be a bonanza. With about a week left to go, nearly 90 percent of the 60 ad spots have been sold, which marketers say is about right for an average year. "We're in good shape," says Jo Ann Ross, the head of advertising sales for CBS.
The high demand for Super Bowl spots comes against a background of continued erosion in network TV ratings.
Thus far this season, the most popular show is "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," on CBS, which averages 26.6 million viewers every week. Only two other programs are averaging more than 20 million viewers per week, "Friends" and "Survivor."
So far this season, only CBS and Fox are averaging more viewers than they did last year, and Fox's increase is due almost entirely to the popular baseball postseason.