Stung by the recession, some of the United States' biggest companies are slashing their advertising budgets. But television viewers won't know it from watching the commercials during this year's Super Bowl.
Fans tuning in for the championship game Sunday will see 2 1/2 straight minutes of commercials they can watch in 3-D with special glasses. They'll also see ads featuring comedian Conan O'Brien and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; a reprise of the "Mean" Joe Greene Coca-Cola ad from 1979, this time with Pittsburgh Steelers player Troy Polamalu; and even commercials for commercials, telling viewers to stay tuned for the 3-D spots just before halftime.
Advertisers are defying the downturn by shelling out millions to create the ads, then paying NBC as much as $3 million for 30 seconds of airtime during the game between the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals. That's 11% more than the $2.7 million that Fox charged for the top slots during last year's game, when the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots.
A few companies, such as FedEx Corp. and General Motors Corp., decided not to advertise during this year's Super Bowl. And some viewers have tuned out from the National Football League playoffs; 13% fewer homes watched this year's AFC Championship game compared with 2008, and 23% fewer homes watched the NFC Championship game.
But first-time Super Bowl advertisers have taken the plunge this year, including dog food maker Pedigree and restaurant chain Denny's.
Companies say they're still spending big on Super Bowl ads because no other event captures the interest of an estimated 100 million TV watchers who may actually pay attention to the commercials.
"I would have anticipated that more would have dropped out," said Walter F. Guarino, advertising professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "But this thing is going to be a sellout of major proportions."
DreamWorks Animation is running a 90-second commercial for its movie " Monsters vs. Aliens," one of only a handful of spots of that length ever to run during the Super Bowl.
What's more, it's in 3-D. The movie studio partnered with Intel Corp. and PepsiCo Inc. to make and distribute in supermarkets more than 125 million pairs of glasses that will allow viewers to see the enhanced image. The "Monsters vs. Aliens" ad will be immediately followed by a one-minute, 3-D commercial for PepsiCo's SoBe beverage that features football players Justin Tuck, Ray Lewis and Matt Light.
NBC has agreed to run short teaser ads for the DreamWorks spot in the pregame show and during other commercial breaks.
"There is no platform anywhere in the world that is as effective as this one," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation. "The Super Bowl is the single greatest shared American event."
Katzenberg declined to disclose the commercial's price tag, but called it "a world and Olympic price for us to pay." He added, "We have climbed to new heights to make this work."
In some ways, the big production costs make sense, Guarino said. "If you're going to spend so much money for the media, you don't want to put something out there that's garbage," he said.
Some studies have shown that companies that increase their marketing budgets in a recession do much better in the long run. Businesses that advertised aggressively during the 1981-82 recession had sales twice as high from 1981 to 1985 as those that didn't, according to a 1986 McGraw-Hill Research report.
To get a leg up on the competition was the reason tire maker Bridgestone Americas Inc. decided to continue sponsoring the halftime show this year.
The company also plans to unveil two commercials during the game. One stars Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head taking a drive. The other is set in space, has a surprise ending and is very "high-tech as far as the graphics," said John Baratta, Bridgestone's president of replacement tire sales for the U.S. and Canada.
"We're definitely being cost-conscious on an overall basis, but we don't want to cut things like the Super Bowl spots," he said.
Hyundai Motor America has made eight separate Super Bowl commercials and plans to run two during the game. Some of the options feature the cellist Ma and a new Hyundai program that lets car buyers return their vehicle if they lose their jobs.
"It's a terrible time for the economy but a wonderful opportunity for us to build market share and enhance our brand," said Joel Ewanick, vice president of marketing at Hyundai Motor America.
Next year's Super Bowl may be a different story. Many advertisers bought ad time for this year's game in the spring or summer, before the severity of the economic meltdown had been revealed. As the financial crisis drags on, advertisers may decide that the 2010 Super Bowl isn't worth the money.
Then again, companies such as Audi, which locked in its 30-second spot in mid-November after the stock market crashed, say the state of the economy motivated them to advertise rather than pass.
"America doesn't want to see a brand that's going to completely freeze and stop selling things," said Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer of Audi of America.
Last year's Audi spot, which spoofed " The Godfather," cost $6 million to make, said David Shoffner, spokesman for SpotBowl.com , a website that allows viewers to vote on their favorite ads. Audi says its commercial was seen 600 million times on TV and the Internet. Those numbers prompted the car maker's executives to hop back in to this year's game.
Research suggests companies can get a Super Bowl bump. Two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professors studied the stock market for the two-week period surrounding the 2008 Super Bowl. Publicly traded companies that advertised during the game outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500 index by 2%, the professors found.
With 4 1/2 minutes of advertising time already reserved during this year's game, brewer Anheuser-Busch will have 30 seconds more than last year. The ads will feature Clydesdale horses, O'Brien and either the Bud Light Lime or Budweiser American Ale brands.
"Regardless of the economy, we're still going forward," said Bob Lachky, Anheuser-Busch's chief creative officer. "We still have to run our company. We still have to sell beer."
Classic Super Bowl commericals: