The Super Bowl game is history and most viewers not having an Arizona or Pittsburgh zip code will be hard pressed to remember the final score. But the ads that aired on NBC - and some that didn’t make the cut - will be the subject of endless conversation.
NBC sold 69 advertising spots for the game to 32 different advertisers, grossing a Super Bowl record $206 million. Each in-game ad sold for between $2.4 million and $3 million per 30-second spot. Given the state of the economy, the figures were nothing short of astounding. Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, told the AP, “The Super Bowl has become one of our country’s biggest holidays, a uniquely American day, and advertisers recognized the value in being a part of it.” Not all advertisers.
General Motors, a major advertiser during prior Super Bowls, took a pass on Super Bowl XLIII after receiving a $13.4 billion bailout from Congress. The company is drowning in red ink in the midst of a precipitous decline in automobile sales. Ditto for FedEx, another Super Bowl regular that sat on the sidelines this year for the first time in over a decade.
NBC was able to offset those losses with revenue from new advertisers as well as additional commitments from advertising regulars such as PepsiCo. and Anheuser-Busch InBev. But the final figure wasn’t achieved easily. In past years, Super Bowl ads were sold out months in advance of the game. Not this year. NBC had to lower its original asking price of $3 million per 30-second spot - up 11% from what Fox charged for last year’s game - to sell its entire inventory. The final two spots were sold literally hours prior to kickoff.
But NBC didn’t have to wait that long. While the network accepted sexually suggestive ads from a number of advertisers, including GoDaddy.com which featured Indy racing’s pin-up girl, Danica Patrick, it rejected an ad from PETA on grounds that it depicted “a level of sexuality” which exceeded the company’s standards.
All potential ads must be submitted for review to Victoria Morgan, NBC’s Vice President for Advertising Standards. The PETA ad, titled “Veggie Love,” showed scantily clad women, uh, cozying up to vegetables, and proclaimed that “Studies Show Vegetarians Have Better Sex.” True or false, NBC declared the ad too risque for an audience that included children.
The irony, if not the hypocrisy, of that position was brought home by an organization calling itself Common Sense Media. During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the group released a report titled “Broadcast Dysfunction: Sex, Violence, Alcohol and the NFL.”
The report looked at ads in more than 50 NFL games this season, and every game included ads depicting sex, violence or erectile dysfunction drugs, in addition to the omnipresent ads promoting alcohol consumption. Common Sense Media founder and CEO James Steyer said the study determined that, “one in six of the ads shown during the broadcasts features content that’s wildly inappropriate for kids.”
According to the group’s website, 40 per cent of the games included ads for Viagra or Cialis; nearly 500 of the ads involved gun fights, explosions and murders; 80 of the ads featured significant levels of sexuality, including scenes featuring prostitution and strippers; and 300 of the ads were for alcohol. Almost half of the violent or sexual ads were promos by the networks for their own programming. And a sexy woman cavorting with a stick of broccoli is inappropriate?
Professional sports and TV networks don’t have an exclusive on hypocrisy. Last year, the NCAA turned down a full-page ad from Hooters which the restaurant chain sought to include in the Final Four program. At the same time, the NCAA allows member institutions to accept advertising from gambling interests and permits networks to air alcohol ads during the broadcast of college sports. No sport or network, it seems, can resist the temptation to accept ad revenue from gambling interests.
Maybe NBC can rationalize its rejection of the PETA ad while allowing other ads depicting sex, alcohol consumption and violence during the Super Bowl. But if using scantily clad women to market products is ever appropriate – a debate beyond the scope of this column – I prefer to have them promote veggies.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.