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Super Bowl XLIII: Ads promote that feel-good aura

The annual high-priced 'buy-me' barrage of TV commercials will pay little heed to a painful recession.

February 01, 2009|Reed Johnson

And so it came to pass that a terrible hardship swept over the land, and heavy were the hearts of the people. First the money temples failed. Then the mighty house of Lehman fell silent. And double woe unto them who had followed the evil counsels of Darth Madoff, who was sometimes called Ponzi.

Beholding all this, the people were sore afraid. Even the wise man Bernanke and his sorcerers feared that their magic rods were but twigs against a whirlwind.

But there was one sacred consumer covenant that yet remained: the Super Bowl. Although many in number were the cynics who predicted that the sagging fortunes of the Street of Wall might cast a pall o'er the game, there arose a chorus of defiant voices insisting that the Great Contest of the Inflated Pig Bladder would again be a marvel to behold, like the rising of Excalibur from the lake.

"The Super Bowl will be as grand an event as it always is," hath said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "The NFL brings people together like nothing else. The Super Bowl will once again be an extraordinary day of national unity."

Sing, then, O Muse, of how the glorious battle betwixt the Metallic Fabricators of Pittsburgh and the Fierce Red Avians of Phoenix went forward. Long live the eternal celebration of HDTVs, light pickup trucks, high-sodium snack foods, luxury-box suites and aging rock bands with a new album to plug.

"We will put away childish things manana," the people exulted. "Tonight, we will party like it's 2005!"

Of course, we all know the tale of how the Super Bowl was conceived in corporate sponsorship and dedicated to the proposition that not all championship games are created equal. (The World Series and NBA finals can stretch out over seven days, thus diluting market-advertising- revenue-maximizing potential.)

Long, long ago in an office tower far, far away, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had the brilliant idea of creating a national secular holiday that would help us all forget about having to shovel snow, pay off Christmas debts and file our IRS returns. It would be not only must-see TV, but the biggest product placement opportunity of all time, a four-hour commercial disguised as a football game.

Ever since, Super Bowl ads have been a zeitgeisty barometer of the state of the union. Says Tim Calkins, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, "If you look at what runs in the Super Bowl each year, there's a reflection of what's happening in the country. It's sort of a reflection of who we are."

In fat years, Super Bowl ads tell us that things look bullish for America. In lean years, they're meant to reassure us that, sooner or later, the bears will slink away and Britney Spears once again will lead us in a Pepsi toast to prosperity.

So what about this year, as the country writhes in the coils of a monstrous recession and its newly anointed leader warns of many more tough months to come? "It is certainly a different environment," says Calkins.

Or is it? This year, the official price of Super Bowl tickets reached $1,000 for the first time, although a block of 1,000 tickets has been offered at $500 apiece -- as an "acknowledgment of what our fans are going through," an NFL spokesman said. The game is sold out.

As for advertising, some big corporate names such as General Motors Corp. and FedEx Corp. won't be showing up in Super Bowl TV spots this year. But the Associated Press reported that NBC by mid-January had sold 90% of its ad spots, most at "about $3 million per 30-second spot -- an all-time-high price for the Super Bowl" (although many of those ads were bought last spring, before most of us had grasped how bad things were getting).

As The Times reported last week, most viewers tuning into today's spectacle at Raymond James Stadium will scarcely have a clue that the world economy is in shambles and U.S. companies are laying off tens of thousands of workers. Fans will see 2 1/2 minutes of commercials they can watch in 3-D with special glasses and ads featuring comedian Conan O'Brien and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Didn't we just witness the much-exposed Mr. Ma performing on the steps of the Capitol at the presidential swearing-in? Sort of makes it seem as if the chief executive's inauguration is merely a kind of extended trailer for the real, prime-time blowout today. Will future generations be asking not "Do you remember where you were when Obama was sworn in?" but "Do you remember where you were when Bud Light won Bud Bowl III?"

Last night, on the eve of the big game, CBS was scheduled to air "Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials 2009," essentially a fan-voting contest showcasing past commercials. Hosted by Jim Nantz, CBS' lead NFL play-by-play announcer, and Daisy Fuentes, it embodies the Super Bowl's marketing mission of making the game synonymous with the products it peddles.

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