John Kearse thought he’d made a hit. It was January 2003 and Kearse, then a copy writer at Boston advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, had helped design Monster.com’s ad spot for the upcoming Super Bowl.
In the humorous commercial, an unmanned 18-wheeler tore through a corn field and blew up a gas station while an unemployed truck driver sat in a diner. “Somewhere a trucking company needs a driver,” a narrator said. “Somewhere a driver needs a job. That’s where we come in.”
“It was fun,” recalled Kearse, now Arnold’s creative director. “But ultimately that ended up helping us lose the account.”
In an unexpected turn, Monster, which had paid more than $2 million for 30 seconds of air time, came under fire from trucking unions that accused the company of stoking fears about tractor-trailer highway safety. Kearse and his team at Arnold, the brains behind three straight Super Bowl ads for the online recruiting service, were summarily dumped by Monster.
Welcome to the high-stakes world of Super Bowl ad making, where clients spend millions and expect miracles, viewers demand entertainment that rivals the big game itself, and the slightest miscalculation can get you fired.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to make the client happy, and it feels like your job is riding on it,” said Lance Jensen, chief creative officer at Boston marketing firm Hill Holliday. “They kind of look you in the eye, like ‘Don’t mess this up.’ ”
This year, the pressure is as high as ever. A 30-second spot on CBS's broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII costs a record $3.8 million — by far television’s most expensive half-minute — and the verdict on every ad will be rendered almost instantaneously via social media.
For advertisers, the Super Bowl is an opportunity to reach the biggest television audience of the year — one that actually wants to watch ads. Last year’s game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants was seen by 111 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Super Bowl commercials have become such a pop culture sensation that half of all game viewers will rewatch ads online, and 40 percent will share their favorites with friends on social networks, according to a survey by Venables Bell & Partners, an ad agency in San Francisco that is making a spot for Audi this year.
The lineup of advertisers for this year’s Super Bowl includes mostly familiar corporate names, such as Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Disney, and Volkswagen, whose commercial already is available online and drawing some charges of racism. The ad stars a white man from Minnesota speaking with a Jamaican accent, trying to cheer up his somber office colleagues.
For now, Los Angeles marketing agency Deutsch LA, which made the spot, appears to be safe from the ax that fell on Arnold after the runaway truck ad 10 years ago. Jamaica’s minister of tourism has declared the spot inoffensive, and Volkswagen is standing by the commercial, saying it has no plan to pull it.
Then again, Kearse noted that Monster listened to some pregame grumbling from trucking groups that had heard about the Arnold ad, aired it anyway, then dropped the agency when the outcry grew louder after the Super Bowl.
A few lesser-known companies are using the Super Bowl stage to raise their profiles. Newcomers include MiO liquid water flavoring and SodaStream, maker of a homemade soft drink system, which already has made headlines because CBS rejected its original ad knocking Pepsi and Coke.
Opportunities to make Super Bowl commercials are rare. Boston’s ad agencies, like the hometown Patriots, won’t be part of this Super Sunday, but they have conceived some of the most memorable commercials of the last 15 years.
Hill Holliday made two classic Super Bowl ads for Budweiser in 2002 and 2003. The first depicted the beer maker’s iconic Clydesdale horses bowing to the New York City skyline in a tribute to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The second featured the Clydesdales in a football game, with a zebra reviewing a close call in a replay booth.
Another Monster.com ad, from Mullen, consistently makes the list when critics rank the best Super Bowl commercials of all time. “When I Grow Up,” for the Super Bowl in 1999, featured children sharing uninspiring career goals.
“When I grow up, I want to file all day,” a boy began. Another added, “I want to claw my way up to middle management,” and a third said, “I want to be a yes man.” At the end, onscreen text asked viewers, “What did you want to be?”
The ad touched a nerve in every adult with a dream deferred, said Bruce Gold, Mullen’s senior vice president and group account director.
“It wasn’t about the number of listings on the site or how easy it is to use,” said Gold, part of the creative team that designed the spot. “It was more emotional. ‘What did you want to be?’ You still have the opportunity, through Monster.”
Making the commercial was the advertising equivalent of running a two-minute drill in football. Super Bowl ads are often developed over many months, but Gold recalled that Monster.com, still a fledgling company at the time, asked Mullen to pitch ad ideas in November 1998, just two months before the big game.
Monster had dropped about $1.6 million on a 30-second spot before hearing pitches and expected to be wowed by a proposal that would launch the job site to national prominence.
“There was tremendous pressure because of the money at risk,” Gold said. “It was sort of their introduction to the public, and it was basically their entire ad budget.”
Monster executives picked “When I Grow Up” from what Gold described as a “wide variety of ads.” Only weeks before kickoff, a film crew traveled to New York, Louisiana, and Minnesota to shoot the commercial.
The ad-making process was less hurried but no less challenging for Jensen when General Motors tapped Modernista, the now-defunct Boston ad agency Jensen cofounded before joining Hill Holliday, to create a minute-long Hummer ad for the Super Bowl in 2006. Jensen’s team conducted extensive market research and came to a discouraging conclusion: A lot of consumers did not like Hummer.
“Hummer was very polarizing because of the growing focus on gas mileage,” Jensen said. “We realized we were facing an uphill battle, so we had to try hard to be very disarming and charming.”
Modernista drew laughs with a lighthearted spot in which a Godzilla-like creature fell in love with a giant robot and gave birth to an H3.
When the Super Bowl is over, ad makers will turn their attention to the Feb. 24 Academy Awards, an event some in the industry call the “female Super Bowl,” Kearse said. But even with a hefty price tag of $1.7 million for a 30-second spot, ads during the Oscars still cost less than half of what they do during the Super Bowl, and the spotlight is much smaller.
There are other major advertising events, like the Final Four and the Olympics, but “nothing is like the Super Bowl,” Kearse said. “Nobody’s tuning in to watch the ads during the Olympics.”Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.