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SBJ/20090126/Super Bowl XLIII
Inside the creative process of Bud ads
Published January 26, 2009
It was 1988 when Anheuser-Busch first pitched a TV network on the idea of buying four minutes of advertising in the Super Bowl, along with having alcoholic beverage category exclusivity.
At the time, Miller Brewing Co. had postseason NFL rights, so A-B could not even use the words “Super Bowl” in its ads. The solution: Create its own championship as a way to leave Budweiser’s mark on America’s biggest sports event.
The Bud Bowl was born.
A-B needed a spot in each quarter to air the ad creation, which saw helmeted, stop-motion animated bottles of Bud play football against bottles of Bud Light during the Super Bowl XXIII broadcast.
“We knew we were leaving ourselves open for a big price from NBC,” recalls Tony Ponturo, the recently retired head of A-B’s global media and sports marketing operation, “but of all the things in my career, creating a position in the Super Bowl is one I’m proudest of.”
Those first four spots cost $5 million, together. That’s $1 million less than the asking price for two spots in this year’s game.
For the record, Bud beat Bud Light that year, 27-24 on a late field goal, but more importantly for the industry, since then, A-B has not relinquished its position as the Super Bowl’s biggest advertiser. It holds those exclusive category rights through 2012.
The Bud Bowl petered out as a TV ad platform in the mid-1990s, but A-B hung onto its annual practice of running four to six minutes of new ads in each game. It wasn’t just about winning ad polls like the USA Today Ad Meter. It was about selling beer: a monthly lift of 17 percent in the Bud Bowl’s first year and coming in January, typically a dead sales month.
“We drove a spike in the January beer business that’s still maintained,” said Bob Lachky, A-B’s chief creative officer, who’s had a hand in the company’s Super Bowl ads dating to that first Bud Bowl. “The Super Bowl grew and became a huge event socially, and we grew with it. You’ve got almost 100 million sets of eyeballs and most are beer drinkers in a social occasion. It’s just the most natural place for us to be.”
Brand marketers and their agencies sweat enormously over producing even one Super Bowl ad because it is the industry’s biggest showcase. As Lachky notes, it’s also the day “everybody in America becomes an advertising expert.”
Because A-B traditionally is a heavy fourth-quarter calendar advertiser, the concepts for the company’s many Super Bowl ads typically begin to get discussed just after Labor Day.
Mark Gross, senior vice president and group creative director at A-B agency partner DDB Chicago, says the process starts with “literally hundreds of scripts.” By November, somewhere between 12 and 20 scripts have been turned into storyboards. After meetings at the brewery, a dozen to 15 are selected for production. Most are shot before Christmas, but spots that don’t use special effects and won’t take as long to complete can get shot in January.
The week prior to Super Bowl week, 12 or more of the spots are shown to focus groups at cities in the Midwest, West and East. There are about 30 people in the room who have identified themselves as beer drinkers between the ages of 21 and 55. They are asked to rate the ads on a 1-10 scale.
“If an ad gets an eight, it is really difficult for them to say it’s not going on the Super Bowl,” Gross said.
Normally, the focus groups are reliable. “Skydiver,” an ad in which a pilot jumps from a plane, pursuing a six-pack of Bud Light, won the testing before Super Bowl XXXIX and subsequently won the USA Today poll. Another ad, in which a band of crabs steal a cooler of Bud and then genuflect in front of their new master, tested only OK, but it won the Ad Meter in 2007. Lachky still doesn’t know why.
“It was good enough to be in the game, but I didn’t think it was terribly funny or surprising,” he said.
A 1999 ad, “Separated at Birth,” the tale of two dalmatians from the same litter, got indifferent ratings from focus groups. After it was tweaked to more clearly show both the passage of time and more succinctly identify the two dogs, it won the Ad Meter, something A-B has done for the past 10 years.
Lachky said the internal approval process is not difficult, although he said working on the ad in Super Bowl XXXVI where the famed A-B team of Clydesdales paid homage to 9/11 victims was “gut wrenching.”
Aside from that ad, which ran just once, lest A-B be seen as capitalizing on the tragedy, one of the bigger points of discussion comes in deciding where each of the ads gets placed during the game broadcast.
“It used to be you wanted to load up in the first half, the first and second quarter,” Lachky said. “But now, I don’t think that is valid, because there is interest in the game that stays.”
The ads are usually delivered to the network four to five days before the game, although Lachky recalls changing his mind about what to air as late as a day before the Super Bowl.
The money A-B has poured into the networks over the years has bought some influence along with air time. Ponturo recalls two of what may have been the only instant make-goods in the history of the game.
At Super Bowl XXVI in Minnesota, a call to Ponturo from a viewer in Florida told him that a first-quarter ad broke up. The network didn’t see anything at its end but granted A-B another ad slot in the third quarter. Later, it was discovered that a satellite problem had scuttled the ad in 11 percent of the country.
Another year, when Bud had its name on the blimp hovering over the Super Bowl venue, the obligatory shot was marred by the blinding sun. After a few phone calls, the blimp got a second beauty shot, this time with a clearly visible logo.
Exactly what makes an ad “Super Bowl worthy” is something that the folks behind the creatives will debate forever.
“You want something that is new, high on the entertainment scale, funny and perhaps surprising,” Lachky said.
But doesn’t that sound like every Bud Light spot?
“A lot of advertisers that get on the game seem like they are all doing Bud Light ads,” Lachky said. “The good news for us is, that is our strategy, but it can be a crowded game when everybody follows the same formula. There are times I’ve seen [other Super Bowl] ads and said, ‘I don’t know what the brand is,’ so we try to make sure that doesn’t happen with any of our creative.”
This year’s crop of A-B Super Bowl ads is expected to include three spots using the iconic Clydesdales: one showing a romance with a circus horse, another tracing Clydesdale history, and a third with a game of fetch. Bud Light will continue its recent “drinkability” campaign, and expect pushes for two recent launches: Budweiser American Ale and Bud Light Lime.
“We’re just trying to show Bud is still a great American brand and nothing has changed,” Lachky said, referencing A-B’s acquisition last year by Belgium’s InBev.
DDB’s Gross said it’s about finding a universal concept. His favorite ads are the relatively simple ones, like “Magic Fridge,” featuring an attempt to hide a stash of Bud Light in a revolving fridge that “magically’’ appears in an adjacent apartment. He also noted “Shopping,” where a guy reluctantly shopping with his wife finds refuge inside a clothes rack with other guys, quaffing Bud Light and watching football; along with “Satin Sheets,” in which a man is enticed to bed by some Bud Light. After diving on the sheets, he goes flying out the window, sans clothes.
“The toughest part in all of this is finding that one simple, relatable idea,” Gross said. “I’m not the guy who wants the giant, million-dollar exploding-car chase scene. It’s never that; it’s ‘What’s the core idea?’
“‘Satin Sheets’ was a silly spot about a guy flying out the window. … It was just a great visual. When we finished ‘Magic Fridge,’ I worried about how it looked, but people just loved the idea. It’s all about putting a new and funny spin on a common truth.”