No Fumbles Allowed as Madison Avenue Prepares for Super Bowl

In early August, creative teams from several different advertising agencies gathered at Procter & Gamble's headquarters in Cincinnati to take part in Madison Avenue's version of the reality show "Shark Tank."

The teams, representing various brands in P&G's home-care division, were given 30 minutes to pitch top executives on their ideas for ads to air Feb. 4 during the Super Bowl.

The winner: Febreze air freshener, which put forth an ad that features Dave, an unassuming character whose "bleep don't stink."

Marketers engage in an increasingly elaborate process to craft Super Bowl ads, in the hopes that scoring on television's biggest stage can help them define a brand, launch a new product or revive sales. It can be a monthslong endeavor involving numerous pitches and script ideas, storyboarding, online focus groups, internal reviews by corporate officials and promotions for the ad itself. All the while, brands try to avoid creative fumbles, such as jokes that go too far or political references that don't go over well.

Companies eventually pay big bucks to the Super Bowl broadcast network: upward of $5 million for 30 seconds to NBC this year. And that's on top of production costs that can range from $1 million for simpler ads to more than $5 million for more sophisticated spots with exotic filming locations or celebrities.

"It's a pressure cooker," said Guerin McClure, associate brand director for Febreze. "You have got to be memorable, you have to be witty, you have to say something that will actually move the business but you have to do it in a way that is not crass," he added.

The Super Bowl, which draws more than 100 million viewers, has been a showcase for memorable and buzzy ads for decades. But the stakes are rising for Madison Avenue because the NFL's title game is a rare opportunity to blast out a message to a single, captive audience increasingly fragmented across myriad cable channels and streaming services.

"Super Bowl is one of the last remaining mass media vehicle," said Hal Curtis, a creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. "Media is so fractured now."

In 2017, advertisers paid an estimated $419 million for in-game ad time, according to Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm owned by WPP PLC. Most brands see a big payoff in sales and free press. P&G said it enjoyed its highest week of sales for the Febreze products it featured last year in its Super Bowl ad. Auto maker Kia said its spot last year, which featured its Niro crossover and actress Melissa McCarthy, generated more than 5,000 news stories, a spike in website traffic and brisk sales.

In 1999, Monster Worldwide Inc. ran a spot that featured children talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, which helped the company establish itself in the crowded online job-posting industry.

Even so, ad executives say the societal fissures laid bare in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath have made it more difficult to gauge which ads will prompt a backlash. Social-media amplifies controversies quickly, with the potential to turn them into crises for brands.

"It's more risky now that it ever was before. Thank you, Mr. Trump," said Dean Evans, the chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor America.

Hyundai was planning an ad for this year's Super Bowl that promoted women's empowerment. It featured a wife working as an astronaut on the international space station helping her husband unlock the car using Hyundai's Blue Link app.

The car maker decided to change course, partly because of the criticism Audi received last year over a Super Bowl spot that promoted gender pay equality, Mr. Evans said. Another factor was the ad didn't score as strong with men in an online focus group of 500 people.

Hyundai now plans to run an ad to highlight a program it has to fight pediatric cancer. It scored well with men and women.

Several months ago, PepsiCo put its two Super Bowl spots through two additional layers of ad testing, in part to make sure its commercials wouldn't strike the wrong note.

One test involved using Twitter Insiders, a research tool that allowed the beverage and snack giant to show its ad to roughly 5,000 people who agreed to participate using a private Twitter platform. The other involved internal executives reviewing ads.

"We don't want to generate a conversation we didn't intend to start," said Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo's North America Beverage division.

The two procedures were added last year after an ad starring celebrity Kendall Jenner upset many viewers, who felt it trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi pulled the ad.

Some brands find an upside to controversy. Last year, building-supply company 84 Lumber Co.'s ad featuring a wall on the U.S. border sparked a backlash and boycott calls from some supporters of President Donald Trump. The Eighty Four, Penn. company said the ad helped drive recruitment and increased awareness of its brand 25%, as measured by consumer surveys.

Even ads meant to be silly could land a brand in trouble. Creative executives at Grey New York, the agency that devised Febreze's Super Bowl ad, had their work cut out for them. "We set out to create the "cleanest poop joke of all time," said Jeff Stamp, Grey's deputy chief creative officer.

The agency spent the summer coming up with ideas in a war-room set up at its New York headquarters. It was littered with storyboards and roughly 30 different scripts.

The story they settled on is meant to convey that people need Febreze for their bathroom, because the people at their Super Bowl parties aren't like Dave.

One scene left on the cutting room floor showed Dave and his buddies pulling a prank by leaving a flaming bag of poop on a neighbor's doorstep. (The prank failed because Dave's bleep doesn't stink.)

The agency also debated using the familiar bleeping censor sound instead of the actual word "bleep," but said it chose not to because it believed that NBC, which is airing the Super Bowl and reviews all the ads, might reject the idea.

Write to Suzanne Vranica at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 30, 2018 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)