Super Bowl XLIII: Tech Vendors Pass on $3 Million Ad Spots

Every Super Bowl has some splashy TV ads, but don't look for many this year from tech vendors. The gloomy economy is keeping even the tech giants on the Super Bowl sidelines. At the same time, Nortel and Satyam's recent fumbles have affected other high-profile sporting events.

By Thomas Wailgum
Tue, January 27, 2009

CIOSuper Bowl XLIII will kick off on Sunday in Tampa Bay, Fla., the culminating game of a long and grueling schedule created by the National Football League (and a bit of packaged software) just over a year ago.

The NFL wouldn't be where it is today (arguably the most high-profile of U.S. professional sports, with some 138 million adults calling themselves fans, according to Scarborough Sports Marketing) without the scores of brand-name companies that sponsor everything from the sideline cups (Gatorade) to the coach's headsets (Motorola).

Depending on the matchups each year, the TV advertisements can be more interesting to watch than the Super Bowl games themselves. Those TV ads aren't cheap: It'll cost brand marketers $3 million for a 30-second spot on NBC, which is broadcasting the game this year. (And there's debate about just how effective the ads are.) Budweiser, car companies, movie studios, Coke and Pepsi, and mobile device manufacturers are your usual lineup of big spenders.

Since the 1990s, however, it seems like high-tech companies have become more and more a part of the event that is the Super Bowl. The dotcom boom of the late '90s, in particular, thrust the consumer-oriented e-commerce sites (remember the Pets.com and E-Trade ads?) into pop culture and water cooler chatter. (Investor's Business Daily reported that there were 36 Internet advertisers during the 2000 telecast.)

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IMAGE: Wikipedia

While the high-tech business elite—Apple, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, for instance—have made sporadic Super Bowl appearances, they have largely shunned the big marketing opportunity and premium cost of the big game.

Since 1989, here's when those heavy hitters and their stout ad budgets have appeared in a Super Bowl ad: Apple (1999), Dell (2008), HP (2007), IBM ('01, '04), Intel ('97, '98), Microsoft (2004), Oracle (1998), SAP (none), according to data compiled by The New York Times.

How Do You Advertise ERP Software on TV?

One obvious challenge for a company like, say, Oracle or SAP, is trying to position their set of complex products to a mass audience, though EDS's famed "Cat Herders" advertisement in 2000 did an admirable job. (See "The 10 Best and 10 Worst IT-Related Super Bowl Commercials of All Time" to see how tech companies have succeeded or failed.)

For the 2009 Super Bowl, several dotcoms are back in the Super Bowl mix (Careerbuilder.com, Cars.com and E-Trade), but the only company with a TV ad that resembles a high-tech vendor is General Electric, with a 30-second spot touting its Smart Grid technology. (GE owns NBC, so maybe it got a good deal.)

What's interesting is that, according to Scarborough Sports Marketing and Nielsen data, the NFL audience is quite tech savvy. NFL fans (defined as those adults who are "very, somewhat, or a little bit interested" in the NFL) are more likely than the average U.S. adult to have all types of high-tech items in their household, from DVRs and MP3 players to HDTV.

In retrospect, the dotcom bust now seems like "not that bad a time," considering the state of the global economy today and the IT sector, in particular: layoffs and disappointing earnings from Microsoft, facilities closed and layoffs at Intel, Nortel's bankruptcy filing, and layoffs at IBM, which actually had a decent fourth quarter.

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