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Super Bowl Ads: More Than a Game at Stake - 2002-02-02

This Sunday afternoon, millions of Americans will stop whatever they're doing to watch the Super Bowl, the championship of professional American football. But, much more than a game is at stake.

It's almost Super Bowl Sunday, and for many of the 800 million or so people watching around the world, it's all about football. But some fans will be watching the big game for something else: The Super Bowl is America's showcase for some of the nation's best-known companies, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pepsi cola.

And it's a big day for new advertisers, as well.

The Universal Orlando theme park and resort will spend an estimated $3 million for a single minute of airtime. Gretchen Hoffman, Universal's Senior Vice President of Marketing, says the attraction has a bit of an identity crisis. "The vast majority of people in the country have absolutely no idea this place exists," she says. "They think maybe it's a theme park somehow associated with movies."

Universal Orlando has been living in the shadow of its biggest competitor, Walt Disney World, just a short drive down Interstate 4. "There's room for more than one player and we believe we have a truly unique and extraordinary product in our own right, that we just want people to become familiar with," says Ms. Hoffman.

There's also a deeper problem: a huge drop in tourism in Orlando since the September terrorist attacks. Ms. Hoffman says Universal has decided to fight the downward trend, and that means being a part of the Super Bowl. "We had two choices. We could say we're in a tough tourist environment right now, and we're gonna hunker down until the storm passes and play a very passive role," she says. "That's one approach. The other approach was, we're going to take the position of a leader, and proactively encourage people to enjoy a family vacation."

The Super Bowl is the single most-watched sporting event of the year. Industry experts say commercials will cost about $2 million dollars for 30 seconds, $3 million for a minute. When you're spending that kind of money, Ms. Hoffman says, you take your time to do it right. "We hired a new agency partner in September to do this work for us," she says. "We had started talking with different agencies in June, so that process took several months, we saw over 200 campaigns in the course of that process. Once we had narrowed it down to the agency we hired, it was another couple of months in the production timing, casting and so forth."

Gretchen Hoffman says, even then, it took the company some time to decide whether or not to buy time during the Super Bowl. "We made the decision once we saw the film, and that was shortly before the holidays. It was based on the quality of the work that we have, and our decision to do that was reinforced by the performance that we had at the parks over the holidays," she says.

She says Universal had more visitors than expected during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Park officials say it's an indication that some people are willing to travel again, if given a reason to do so. Ms. Hoffman says the Super Bowl is the best way to reach the greatest number of potential visitors. "You simply do not get the quality or quantity of viewership in any other program that runs during the course of the year," she says. "When I say quality, it's the only show I know of where you actually have some viewers who want to see the ads and not get up and run to the bathroom between breaks."

And even though the potential return is great, Ms. Hoffman says Universal Orlando is not counting on one commercial during the big game to do it all. "The Super Bowl is merely the kickoff to a national campaign that's going to run over time," she says.

As far as the commercial itself, the visual content is a closely guarded secret for now, but Ms. Hoffman promises viewers will enjoy the spot as much as the people in it do. "It's a take-off on the tried and true testimonial format, which is a proven winner in advertising over years, where you just have consumers tell you what they want," she says.

There's plenty to see, and there are some surprises. But no matter how powerful or spectacular a commercial is, timing is everything. Universal Orlando hopes viewers will still be watching by the time the commercial goes on the air, during the Super Bowl's second half.