In the business world, that amorphous concept called "consumer confidence" is measured in dozens of metrics, algorithms, and white papers. In the real world, there are Super Bowl ads. So, unsurprisingly, if you look at the lineup of Super Bowl ads from tech companies this year, the outlook isn't sunny.
Virtually all the electronic and digital brands running ads at this year's game between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers have advertised at the Super Bowl in past years: domain giant GoDaddy, job search sites Monster.com and CareerBuilder, brokerage house E-Trade, and online auto marketplace Cars.com. There's a hype-filled new ad about "smart grid" innovation, but it's run by General Electric, parent company of this year's Super Bowl broadcaster NBC.
"There's not that many of us," said Richard Castellini, chief marketing officer for CareerBuilder, which has partnered with Facebook and its "Engagement Ads" program to poll members of the social-networking site on both the game outcome and their favorite parts of CareerBuilder's 60-second ad. "It's a challenging environment, as we all know."
In other words, we'll soon see that 2009 won't be like "1984." With price tags that can reach nearly $3 million and the inevitable need to compete with garish offerings from food and beverage brands like Anheuser-Busch and its army of Clydesdale horses, Super Bowl ads are something that could disappear quickly from a budget amid financial panic, and that newer entrants in the industry might opt to skip. Or at least most venture capital firms and shareholders would hope so.
Indeed, some of last year's tech advertisers have opted not to participate. GPS manufacturer Garmin, which ran an ad in the second quarter of Super Bowl XLII, will not be running an ad this year. Neither will online lead generator Salesgenie.com, which was criticized for racially insensitive ads last year and first ran Super Bowl ads in 2007. Representatives from Dell, which ran an ad in conjunction with the Project RED awareness campaign last year and has made no mention of doing another ad this year, could not be reached for comment.
Some of those sticking around have changed their tune. "Last year we were really an occupational vigilante, the one who came into the room and shook you up," CareerBuilder's Castellini said of the company's last ad campaign, which had a 'quit your job and improve your life' theme. "(This year) we're launching an overall campaign that's going to be more spurred toward helpful insights and your job search."
On the flip side, it's not as though Super Bowl XLII in 2008 was stuffed with tech ads; the industry's presence at the game has been quiet in recent years. During the Super Bowl in 2000, a whopping 40 percent of the ads came from dot-coms in a bubbly parade led by the infamous Pets.com sock puppet.
Since then, on the scale of Silicon Valley silliness-to-be-avoided, coughing up the money for a Super Bowl ad has ranked up there with putting a basketball hoop in the conference room. It's become clear in recent months that the tech industry didn't learn all its lessons from the last market crash, but even though the open-bar launch parties and dubious business models came back, $3 million for a 30-second ad remained gauche.
Established consumer electronics and telecom brands have kept running Super Bowl ads, to an extent, but the Web companies have been largely limited to job-hunting and finance-related brands. After all, the Web 2.0 era has been defined largely by the rise of a company - Google -that has never run a television advertisement for any of its own products.
Making the most of digital tie-ins
The tech industry is still scrambling for the spotlight in this year's game, but for the most part, it's not by running ads: digital tie-ins, predictably, are a big deal. CareerBuilder has its Facebook partnership. There's been another user-generated ad contest for Doritos, as there have been for the past few years.
The PepsiCo.-owned brand SoBe LifeWater will be running the first-ever 3D Super Bowl ad, and said in a New York press conference earlier this week that it has produced nearly 130 million pairs of 3D glasses for it. Powered by Intel's InTru3D technology, the goggles (emblazoned with Intel logos) are being distributed at LifeWater displays in supermarkets and big-box retailers. GoDaddy, a longtime Super Bowl advertiser, is accompanying its two commercials with a Web-only version that it claims is too hot for TV.
E-Trade has bought a front-page video ad on the Google-owned YouTube to "tease" its Super Bowl ad, and YouTube will be encouraging viewers to vote on their favorite ads after the game. AOL, too, plans to aggregate all commercials on its Fanhouse.com sports property.
As many anticipated months in advance, the Super Bowl ad lookout is dreary across the board. But there's one potential bright spot: Earlier this week, video hub Hulu announced unexpectedly that it would be running an ad. Hulu, joint-owned by Super Bowl broadcaster NBC, has kept its television debut conspicuously cloak-and-dagger other than to say the spot will "reveal the secret" to its product and launch its first television ad campaign.
It might come across as a last-ditch effort on the part of beleaguered broadcast media, but the news of the Hulu ad certainly set off some speculation in the blogosphere. Will there be new content partners announced? Or some nifty new features? Cynics, all too used to disappointment and gloomy headlines these days, figured it will probably just be a marketing pitch to Super Bowl viewers who might not have heard about Hulu yet. They may well be correct.
But as much as they might not admit it, more than a few media geeks are probably going to have their ears perked up in anticipation of the Hulu spot. These days, those of us in the digital business are hungering for some excitement, some innovation, and some good news - and some Buffalo wings, and nachos, and nail-biting fourth-quarter moments on the field.
By Caroline McCarthy
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