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Super Bowl ads passing on splashy theatrics

By Brian Steinberg and Suzanne Vranica
The Wall Street Journal

Viewers tuning in to Super Bowl XXXVIII on Sunday may notice something missing: There won?t be many of those expensive, stop-in-your-tracks advertising extravaganzas that have characterized the game since Apple Computer?s "1984" ad two decades ago.

In past Super Bowls, Madison Avenue has treated fans to cowboys herding cats on the open plain, courtesy of Electronic Data Systems, and a Broadway-style song-and-dance number featuring eTrade Financial?s chimpanzee. But this year, advertisers are taking a tamer approach. Energizer Holdings Inc. will boast about "the power of 4" blades in its Schick Quattro razor in a commercial that has already been on the air. Expedia, InterActiveCorp.?s travel Web site, will feature a guy who thinks he might want theater tickets but goes for basketball tickets instead.

Monster Worldwide?s Monster.com, which dazzled audiences last year with an out-of-control tractor-trailer, plans to run a spot about people getting ready for work in the morning.

"Last year?s ad was perceived as fun, but that ad could have been about any company," says Jeff Taylor, founder of Monster. "Now, it?s about making sure we?re a relevant brand in the new era we?re entering."

Why the shift? Some agency people think lingering uncertainty about the economy is fostering the more conservative climate.

"I don?t think frivolousness is the right thing to do today with a sophisticated consumer who is watching the coins," says David Lubars, president of Publicis Groupe SA?s Fallon Worldwide.

"The big theatrics and effects were popular in a time when there wasn?t much happening in the world," says Jonathan Asher, president of Dragon Rouge, a New York brand-consulting firm. But these days, he says, "there is enough real-life action."

Other marketers say they are simply going with what works - something that changes from moment to moment. Whatever the reason, clients are no longer giving agencies carte blanche to go wild for the game. With 30-second spots costing a record $2.3 million, on average, the pressure is on for each ad to produce lasting results, not just a one-time splash.

"The Super Bowl is one big party, but advertisers who are shelling out money are very concerned," says Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Publicis?s Leo Burnett USA. "Are their messages going to connect?"

But the new low-key approach risks disappointing viewers who tune in primarily for the ads. And this year, the most talked-about ad isn?t even scheduled to appear during the game. U.S. entertainment-news shows have been airing scenes from a flashy Pepsi spot featuring pop princesses Pink, Britney Spears and Beyonce Knowles, plus Latin crooner Enrique Iglesias, all dressed like gladiators. But the spot was produced to air in overseas markets and isn?t going to run during the Super Bowl. A spokesman for Pepsi, a unit of PepsiCo, says the celebrity ad doesn?t match the current U.S. campaign.

For the U.S. Super Bowl audience, Pepsi plans a spot in which an actor portraying a young version of the late 1960s icon Jimi Hendrix makes a crucial choice: He opts for the Pepsi machine adjacent to a guitar store, bypassing a Coca-Cola machine outside an accordion store.

"It?s all about the advertising idea, and the ideas we have been seeing that we liked the most happened to not include celebrities," says Dave Burwick, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Pepsi-Cola North America.

There will be a few attempts at wizardry: General Motors Corp.?s Cadillac, for example, uses high-tech effects to promote its latest model. And there will be at least one famous face. International Business Machines Corp. is featuring Muhammad Ali in a commercial promoting the Linux operating system. It has a somber tone: Unfolding against a stark, white backdrop, it features a freckle-faced boy watching footage from Mr. Ali?s fights. A moment later, the boxer himself appears and urges the kid to "shake up the world."

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Oh well, I'll be watching for the Cadillac ads. :)

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