What's Missing from Super Bowl XXXV?


Expect the usual pomp and puffery when CBS airs Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28. But you'll notice one notable change from last year's show -- a dearth of dot-com advertisers.

The 2000 pigskin extravaganza, which came at the height of the dot-com boom, was a cyberspace-ad showcase. Of the $130 million spent for commercial time during the matchup between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans, 17 dot-com companies forked over a cool $44 million, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.

Not so this year. Only three dot-coms -- E*Trade and employment sites HotJobs.com and Monster.com -- will be back for the big game. But don't cry for CBS. As dot-com sponsorship lags, more established consumer brands are picking up the slack. Levi Strauss & Co. has purchased Super Bowl ads for the first time, and MasterCard is back after sitting out last year. Others in the lineup include General Motors, Subway, Anheuser-Busch, and FedEx.

DEAD EITHER WAY. In the end, the Tiffany Network expects to collect about $2.4 million for each 30-second spot, a slight increase over last year's rate. "Even though it's a softer ad market, CBS will have no problems," says Derek Baine, an analyst with media company Paul Kagan Associates.

But CBS won't be getting companies to pay extraordinary last-minute rates, as dot-coms did for last year's Super Bowl. "They died to get in and died as a result of getting in," says Aaron Cohen, director of media buying at Horizon Media. Cohen doesn't believe the network will get the $2.4 million for 30-second spots that it's hoping for. He predicts that it'll get $2.1 million to $2.2 million, which would be in line with last year's rate.

Why are last year's big spenders staying on the bench? The biggest factor is the derailment of the dot-com gravy train. Companies awash in venture-capital funds a year ago are struggling just to keep their cyberbusinesses afloat. "You saw up to 100% of venture capital or IPO-raised proceeds being plowed into advertising campaigns by the dot-coms last year," says Gordon Hodge, a media analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners, a San Francisco financial-services company. "That supply has been choked off."

"What the hell were they thinking about in the first place?"

In retrospect, plowing so much money into Super Bowl ads looks like a lame investment for most dot-commers. Although consumer sites saw the big game as a chance to build brand quickly and reported huge leaps in traffic during the Super Bowl and in the days after, the hype didn't necessarily translate into revenue increases. Pets.com and Epidemic.com have gone belly-up, and other e-tailers are reeling. "What the hell were they thinking about in the first place?" asks Richard Johnson, CEO of HotJobs.com, which will be airing Super Bowl ads for the third consecutive year. "For a lot of these companies, it didn't make sense."

Hindsight is 20/20, and industry analysts now agree that Super Bowl advertising makes sense for only the few dot-coms that sell something that almost everybody wants -- a job lead, for example, as HotJobs.com does, or an investment portfolio. The other key ingredient is staying power -- the financial wherewithal to continue advertising and building brand recognition for months after the big game.

PASSING THE TEST. Only three or four of the dot-coms from last year's Super Bowl pass both tests, including the three that are back. A number of Internet companies that have opted not to return are redirecting their ad dollars. "What you saw last year were dot-coms that had a lot of money to spend and wanted to do it in the biggest way possible," says David Miranda, CEO of LastMinuteTravel.com, a travel discounter that won't be back as a Super Bowl advertiser this year.

AutoTrader.com isn't returning, either. "I have a very healthy marketing budget. It isn't a money issue," says Clark Wood, the company's marketing vice-president. He says AutoTrader viewed the Super Bowl as a one-time buy to help revitalize "a brand that had been in limbo for quite a while." Unlike many other dot-coms, AutoTrader continues to advertise a lot during big-time sporting events, including regular-season National Football League games, where ads are less pricey than for the Super Bowl.

The returning dot-coms could actually score a few extra points: Now that fewer of them are advertising, it should be easier to attract attention. From that perspective, $2.4 million for 30 seconds of air almost sounds like a sweet deal. By Mark Hyman in Baltimore and Tom Lowry in New York


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