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Rise in Super Bowl Ad Prices Threatens Raw Deal for Advertisers

As the price of advertising in the Super Bowl continues to rise -- it cost about $3 million for 30 seconds this year -- it's increasingly clear that many advertisers think buying a commercial in the big game isn't really worth it, even though the event still delivers one of the biggest audiences in the U.S.

In the very first Super Bowl, in 1966, it cost just $42,500 to buy a 30-second commercial during the game. Only 26.7 million people watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10.

Times have changed. For Super Bowl XLIV advertisers paid $3 million on average during the New Orleans Saints-Indianapolis Colts faceoff. The audience has increased too -- the previous four Super Bowls all had more than 90 million viewers each.

(Click to enlarge; source: Nielsen/Adweek) But, as these charts indicate, while the dollar cost of an ad on the Super Bowl has increased more than 6,900 percent, the effective per-viewer cost has tripled since 1984.

(Click to enlarge.) That year, 85.5 million people watched the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10. Advertisers paid $525,000 per spot, or about 1 cent to reach each person viewing the game. Today, a $3 million spot works out at about 3 cents to reach each viewer.

The other thing you'll notice in the numbers is that while the total audience for the game has topped out between 90 and 100 million people, the total price still seems to be climbing. The game broke the $1 million barrier in 1994, and the $2 million mark in 1999. The price has been $3 million since 2008.

Those rising costs, coupled with the fact that most advertisers want to reach niche audiences -- moms over 40 or kids under 13, for instance -- instead of mass audiences, have created a debate about whether Super Bowl advertisers are getting enough bang for their buck. This year, Pepsi, General Motors and FedEx -- all former Super Bowl advertising stalwarts -- decided enough was enough and withdrew from the show.

In their place newer, upstart brands -- such as GoDaddy and Cash4Gold -- are using the game to make a splash in front of one of the few truly massive audiences that the media can still deliver.

One way to measure whether advertisers are getting their money's worth is to see if consumers are talking about the ads after the game -- there's no point in burning $3 million in 30 seconds if no one remembers your ad. This year, Mullen (the ad agency for Timberland, Four Seasons and Stanley Tools) created "Brand Bowl 2010," which monitors Twitter for comments about Super Bowl ads, and assigns them a negative or positive rank.

Going in to the game, Focus on the Family's anti-abortion "Celebrate life" spot starring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow led the pack with more Tweets than any other advertiser. Audi was second and Universal Studios was third. Generating least buzz -- with no tweets at all -- were Diamond Foods, Budweiser's Select 55 and CBS, the broadcaster of the game (and the owner of BNET.com). Ulp!

But that all changed dramatically by the end of The Who's halftime show: Teleflora led the pack with 15,461 Tweets following a so-so ad that posited the notion that flowers sent in a box are not as good as fresh flowers sent from a local florist. (Perhaps the company generated comments because until that ad aired no one knew boxed flowers were controversial?)

In second place was Doritos (15,297 Tweets), which dominated the first quarter with a trio of hilarious ads. The one in which a dog wearing an electronic anti-bark collar slips it onto an unsuspecting human and exacts its revenge was the funniest ad of the first half.

In eighth place was CBS, whose house spots dominated the breaks. Most memorable was its ad for CSI: Miami in outer space, which generated a "what the f---?" reaction at the Super Bowl party I attended.

Focus on the Family slipped to third place after its ad aired in the 3rd slot of the evening during the first quarter -- it emerged as a mostly unmemorable spot that was over before viewers could figure out what it was about, and thus belied the advance hype surrounding its inclusion in the show. All mouth and no trousers, as the English say.

And finally: Thank you, The Who! Did they rock or what? That's what a halftime show looks like. The End.

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