Small Biz Aims Big With Super Bowl Ads

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The animated cartoon features an Asian panda bear complaining about the lack of customers for his bamboo-furniture company and considers going out of business. But his wife is told by the "Panda Psychic" to instead get free leads from Salesgenie.com.

Six months later, instead of closing shop, Mr. Panda Bear has expanded his company-- all thanks to those leads.

The commercial, featured during 2008's Super Bowl XLII, got slammed, with some viewers saying it evoked racist remarks and insulted Asians. But the 30-second ad did at least get people talking about the small company, undoubtedly the reason Salesgenie aired it during the Super Bowl.

It's certainly not cheap to advertise during the roughly four-hour game, and there is big competition to get a spot in the first place. Commercial slots, which have been sold out since October, went for roughly $3 million this year.

That's part of the reason people thinking about Super Bowl ads typically think of the major players, including Anheuser-Busch InBev's (Stock Quote: BUD) Budweiser and Bud Lite, PepsiCo's (Stock Quote: PEP) Doritos, Best Buy (Stock Quote: BBY) and even E*Trade Financial (Stock Quote: ETF), with its E*Trade baby commercials.

There is no event comparable to the Super Bowl in terms of reaching a mass market, experts say. Last year, 106.5 million viewers tuned in to the Super Bowl. This year, viewership expectations are up to 110 million people, according to MayoSeitz Media.

There is also no other event in which the advertisements actually become water-cooler chit-chat the next day, which is why advertisers often try to be outrageous and edgy, shooting for humor and shock value.

"Super Bowl advertising is an event," says Lonny Strum, of the Voorhees, N.J. based Strum Consulting Group. "Even if you're a medium-size company and advertising, it actually gives you the opportunity to appear as a mega-company."

Smaller companies that are willing to invest and have a commercial "worthy of post-game chatter" could see the expensive commercial as "a platform to become known at the highest possible level," Strum says.

As a result, there have been smaller companies that have gambled on entering the big time via the Bowl -- a gamble that paid off for some, such as HomeAway, an online vacation-home marketplace. For others, including Salesgenie, even drawing negative responses and controversy still got people talking.

"A lot of these smaller companies want exposure very quickly, so [there's] nothing like the Super Bowl to do that," acknowledges Brian Steinberg, TV editor for Advertising Age, a trade publication for marketing professionals.

But he named the Salesgenie commercial among the worst Super Bowl commercial gambles. Steinberg said it alienated Asians and other minorities.

Salesgenie "thought they were funny," Steinberg says, but the humor didn't work for everyone. "The Super Bowl is a very broad-based audience, and you reach all kinds of niche groups as part of the mass."

Go Daddy, a provider of Web domain names and hosting packages that has become a Super Bowl ad veteran, was a virtual unknown before its foray into Super Bowl advertising. It has become notorious for using saucy ads to its advantage.

Go Daddy's first Super Bowl ad aired in 2005, but its inaugural spot was yanked from the air by Fox (Stock Quote: NWS) right before its second viewing. (This year Fox turned away completely an ad for a conservative-themed merchandise company called Jesus Hates Obama that thought it had a $2.3 million deal for a commercial to air in the 30-second spot right before the kickoff.)

The Go Daddy ads, which feature IndyCar racecar driver Danica Patrick and others, often in revealing clothes, have been a source of controversy, none of which has stopped CEO and founder Bob Parsons from submitting equally racy Super Bowl ads for approval. Some have been flat-out denied.

The company acknowledges that it has "built mainstream awareness in large part with edgy Super Bowl campaigns featuring sexy Go Daddy Girls," according to a Jan. 11 press release. Parsons promises the latest Bowl ad campaign will be equally edgy, with the newest "Go Daddy Girl" being The Biggest Loser's Jillian Michaels.

"I would think the Super Bowl probably put Go Daddy on the map," says Tom Egelhoff, founder of SmallTownMarketing.com. "They were a relatively unknown company a few years ago, but they had some very inventive ads. It was probably a stretch for them to be on there."

Smaller companies that air commercials during the event are "either bringing out new products or trying to build a strong brand, like Go Daddy," Strum says.

Groupon, an online daily coupon service in more than 300 markets and 35 countries, is preparing its first foray into television advertising with a spot during the Super Bowl's pregame show. The site, now in its fourth year, has recently been increasing its exposure.

It reportedly rejected acquisition advances made by Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) announced three weeks ago that it had received venture capital totaling just under $1 billion.

The Super Bowl will likely be a good venue for Groupon, Strum says.

"They're an emerging company," he says. The commercial will "put them in the spotlight of big business and, given the nature of what they are doing, it makes sense for them."

While Groupon could follow the path of Salesgenie and even Go Daddy, last year's Super Bowl commercial by HomeAway is a good example of how smaller companies can benefit from positive exposure.

The Austin, Texas based business posted its first Super Bowl ad last year, in which it spoofed the roles of Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold from the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

"They're back again this year, so clearly it worked," AdAge's Steinberg says.

HomeAway founder and CEO Brian Sharples said in a November release announcing the new ad that the first, "Hotel Hell Vacation," generated a 500% increase in consumer visits to the website the day after the Super Bowl and 1 million incremental page views in a 24-hour period.

The commercial was "widely recognized" by the industry as "one of the best commercials aired during the game for driving business results and engagement ... We've set a high bar to make an even bigger splash with next year's campaign," he said.

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