The big game is even bigger this year. As media markets grow increasingly fragmented and the ongoing writers’ strike creates uncertainties about the upcoming television season, the Super Bowl is carrying more weight than ever among advertisers hoping to reach a mass of viewers.

Despite the increasing likelihood of recession, Super Bowl spots were nearly sold out by early January — several weeks sooner than in the past. Advertisers are paying record prices of $2.7 million to $3 million for a 30-second commercial during Fox Broadcasting’s telecast of Super Bowl XLII on February 3, which is expected to draw more than 140 million viewers around the world.

While the power of television has waned as new media compete for consumers’ attention, the Super Bowl appears to have retained — and solidified — its position as the ultimate in television marketing, according to Wharton faculty and industry analysts.

“TV is still the place to go to get an ad in front of large audiences. The Super Bowl obviously has the largest [audience] of all,” says Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams. “In addition, consumers tune in precisely to see the ads and so are more likely to pay attention to them than they are to ads on other TV vehicles.”

Despite the early action to secure ad time for the Super Bowl, a few companies, particularly in the auto industry, have indicated some concerns about the economy. Nonetheless, they decided to remain on board and the current economic gloom is not likely to change the nature of the ads, Wharton faculty and advertising executives say. Viewers will continue to see high-quality commercials, many of them humorous in tone, designed to broadly promote products or brands without too much hard-sell.

“I suspect the ads will continue to be primarily emotional rather than ‘rational,’ and that we will see a mix of humor — probably heavy on the humor — and the warm and fuzzy, ‘lump in your throat’ kind of ads,” says Williams. “I think consumers want the ads to be entertaining. Ads that move us in some way do that.”

Paul Tilley, managing director of creative at DDB Chicago, the agency developing ads for perennial Super Bowl participant Anheuser-Busch and newcomer, says a bleak economic mood will not lead to “downer” Super Bowl ads. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Super Bowl did take on a somber tone because, he says, the country was still in shock. An economic downturn is different.

“We’re doing the same kind of humor that people expect from us,” says Tilley. “If you think about it, the Golden Age of American comedy and musicals was produced during the Depression. If anything, people want to be entertained. They want to escape.”

Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein says Super Bowl advertisers cannot afford not to be funny, no matter the economic climate. “One of the downsides of buying time is that your competition is so intense in overall creativity and quality that it forces you to spend more to break out and win awards for ads,” he says. “The reality is that most of the rating of the ads is done in the public domain, and the ratings are all around entertainment. I don’t think that the fact we’re in a recession is going to lead to a more somber mood.”

An ‘Artful Interruption’

The Super Bowl remains a sweet spot for companies with a target segment that overlaps the characteristics of the audience for the game, such as men who drink beer. As in past years, Anheuser-Busch has purchased more Super Bowl time than any other advertiser. “This is a golden opportunity to get their product mentioned to their target audience,” says Wharton marketing professor Eric Bradlow.

At the same time, he agrees with Reibstein that companies choosing to play in the Super Bowl must come prepared with their A-game. Super Bowl ads can backfire if a competitor comes up with a better spot. “The degree of scrutiny of Super Bowl ads is very high, and hence things tend to bifurcate — there are definite winners and losers,” he says.

Tilley, the Chicago advertising executive, contends that the Super Bowl is now something of a throwback in today’s increasingly fragmented media markets. More than ever, he says, the Super Bowl is the one chance for companies to get the attention of a vast audience in real time. For much of the last 50 years, the role of advertising has been to artfully interrupt programming that consumers were already engaged in, he explains. Mass audiences would tune in to prime-time television shows and special live events, such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics or the Oscars, while advertisers scrambled to outdo one another and capture the audience’s attention with memorable ads.

As TiVo and other time-shifting technologies weaken the power of advertisers to reach a large audience at once, that model is becoming less effective. “Now, the value of advertising is not in interrupting, it is in creating a destination,” says Tilley. Today’s destinations are typically Internet sites, cable television or specialty publications. The trend represents a return to the early days of television, Tilley adds, when soap operas and shows such as the Texaco Star Theater were, in effect, “destinations” designed to showcase content designed by single advertisers to convey their message.

In the meantime, as other mass advertising vehicles grow weaker, the Super Bowl remains the best way to reach a vast audience with interruptive advertising in real time. “The benefit with an interruptive message is that you control it. You know who is watching. You’re in command. There are benefits to more experiential advertising, but there are times you want to say what you want to say to people. That’s the power of the Super Bowl, and there will be fewer and fewer alternatives in the future as people use more technology.”

Animals and Celebrities

Tilley says the Super Bowl is most appropriate for companies with a new message that is relevant to a large audience, like “The audience for that product is everyone who will ever buy a car, so it’s a great window to create huge awareness in a short time,” says Tilley. “It’s not about maintaining a position, but really about introducing themselves to a lot of people.”

Large, mainstream brands, such as his other super client this year, Bud Light, can use the powerful reach of the Super Bowl to remind viewers they are a leading brand. “Bud Light is expected to be there,” says Tilley. “I would almost say that their fans expect it of them. There’s not a lot of news in those spots, but a lot of momentum. They remind people why they love Bud Light.”

Super Bowl newcomer Bridgestone Firestone North America is entering the game with a big stake — two commercials along with sponsorship of the half-time show this year and in 2009. The company’s Super Bowl participation is part of an even larger agreement with the National Football League that includes other advertising sponsorships and designation as the “official tire” of the NFL.

The Bridgestone Firestone ads will emphasize product performance, but with a humorous slant. According to Michael Fluck, the company’s brand marketing manager, an analysis of the 50 most popular Super Bowl commercials in the past five years showed that 46 of the spots featured animals or celebrities. Not surprisingly, one of Bridgestone’s spots will feature animals and the other will focus on celebrities. A total of 28 animals were filmed for one spot, but that number will be culled to nine or ten for the final cut. For the celebrity commercial, the company has signed on Alice Cooper and Richard Simmons.

After scoring a huge hit with its ad last year featuring Kevin Federline flipping burgers, Nationwide Insurance is taking a pass on the Super Bowl this year to focus on other advertising choices, including its NASCAR sponsorship.

Steven Schreibman, vice president advertising and brand management for Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio, says the company’s ad agency presented six ads this year, but none were Super Bowl caliber. “We could have done any of them, but my heart just wasn’t in it,” he says. “With Federline, we knew this was it. This year, there were some good concepts, but nothing really floated my boat.”

Instead, he says, Nationwide will plough the money it had set aside for the Super Bowl into NASCAR, which has the potential to pay off for 10 months of the year. Schreibman also notes that the Federline commercial was so successful it generated publicity before it was even broadcast, and it is still working for Nationwide in media coverage about memorable Super Bowl ads.

Feeding the Hype

In addition to the game itself, the hype over Super Bowl commercials now extends into the pre- and post-game environment. New research shows companies that announce their plans to advertise during the game receive more buzz than companies that keep their plans secret, hoping to jolt the audience into remembering their products with a big surprise.

According to Cymfony, a division of TNS Media Intelligence Co. in Watertown, Mass., which analyzed media attention to last year’s Super Bowl ads, companies that showed their actual ad online before the game generated 4.3 times greater post-game coverage. Despite that finding, Jim Nail, chief marketing officer at Cymfony, says this year’s Super Bowl advertisers are still holding their cards close. He said newcomers to the bowl, such as Audi and Under Armour, should reveal previews of their ads to build interest before the game.

“They’re going to wait until the last minute and hope in the 48 hours after the game — when they will be battling with the other 40 advertisers — that they can get more of their message across,” says Nail. “Good luck to them.”

Just as pre-game buzz is now a part of advertising strategies, Super Bowl ads are increasingly enjoying a “secondary market” in traditional media reports and online with sites including YouTube. As part of its agreement with advertisers, Fox also will set up a page on, which is owned by its parent, News Corp., to replay Super Bowl ads. Fox plans to run two spots during the game to promote the MySpace page.

Reibstein participates in the secondary market by showing the ads the following day in class. “[These] ads are on all the network news shows and there are now a lot of online sites showing the best and the worst of them,” he says. “Advertisers are getting additional exposure.”

How much additional exposure is difficult to measure, he says, as ads filter out into tertiary markets and beyond. Even though the post-game market is difficult to gauge, it is definitely a force. “I think that’s what has lead to the continual upward pricing of Super Bowl ads.”

Cymfony also tracked the effect of different types of media on pre- and post-game coverage last year. Traditional media put more emphasis on Super Bowl ads before the game, with 54% of its coverage occurring in advance. Social media was the opposite, with only 24% of the discussion taking place before the game and 76% after. In addition, Cymfony found a link between pre-game coverage and post-game discussion, with the top six advertisers in pre-game mentions all finishing in the top 10 in post-game coverage.

‘Being the Best’

As is the case each year, the Super Bowl 2008 advertising environment will be shaped by some unique factors. One is the chance for viewers to see the New England Patriots complete a perfect post-season to add to their perfect season.

Reibstein says the Patriots’ presence could cut both ways. For serious fans, the team’s dominance may lead to less interest in the game. For less attentive fans, however, the chance to see sports history in the making may be an added draw. Indeed, the Patriots’ quest for the perfect post-season, adds Bradlow, might give advertising creative teams the opportunity to reinforce brand objectives such as “perfection” or “being the best” during the Super Bowl.

Another wrinkle in this year’s Super Bowl advertising market is the writers’ strike, which has put the upcoming prime-time season in jeopardy as well as mega-events such as the Oscar and Grammy awards shows. “In general, with Americans watching even less television due to a lack of scripted shows this year, the Super Bowl probably plays a much bigger role than it has even in recent years for the network and for a lot of advertisers,” says Wharton’s Williams.

Finally, there is one highly visible group of advertisers this year that will probably steer clear of the Super Bowl. Even though the game falls just two days before the all-important Super Tuesday presidential primaries in California and many other key states, faculty and advertising analysts do not expect to see a presidential pitch along with the traditional Super Bowl Buffalo wings.

According to Nail, most political ads are not anywhere near the quality of the corporate spots shown during the Super Bowl, which typically take months to craft. A political campaign ad is likely to look lame compared to the spots Corporate America can deliver, potentially tarnishing a candidate’s image. He adds that Super Bowl commercials are expensive for a political campaign budget, although the Super Tuesday races will be “do-or-die” for a number of contestants. “From that standpoint, if they wanted to take their last $2.7 million and blow it, that would be a Hail Mary pass.”

Still, he says, audiences might resent political party crashers. “People are there to watch the Super Bowl to forget all that — to escape and cheer on their team,” says Nail. “I think it would be a very unwelcome intrusion into that social, friendly-rivalry atmosphere at all those Super Bowl parties in living rooms across America.”