He's the Coca-Cola pitchman you would not expect: nefarious billionaire Montgomery Burns from "The Simpsons." As he would say: "Exx-cel-lent!"
Burns, the scheming villain on the animated series, is just one part of a campaign from Atlanta-based Coca-Cola tied to this year's Super Bowl. Someone as enthralled with power as Burns would appreciate this: Coca-Cola, the world's biggest beverage company, is taking a rare opportunity this year to outduel its main rival on television's biggest stage.
In a rare occurrence, Coca-Cola products will have a bigger presence on the Super Bowl than beverages from PepsiCo. That's noteworthy because PepsiCo has typically been a big spender on the biggest one-day advertising event of the year. The Super Bowl delivers nearly 100 million viewers, and the effects can be immediate. Traffic to advertiser Web sites spiked on the day after last year's Super Bowl, according to Nielsen Co.
Some experts have expressed surprise at PepsiCo's decision, after 23 years as the game's top soft drink advertiser, to give three commercials instead to its Frito-Lay snack division and focus on an online charitable effort called the "Pepsi Refresh Project."
It’s an intriguing flip-flop. Coca-Cola was absent from the Super Bowl from 1999 to 2006. Some observers speculate that Coca-Cola executives were frustrated at PepsiCo's ability to churn out winning Super Bowl ads, year after year.
In any case, Coca-Cola is in the driver’s seat for this Super Bowl. Besides the ad depicting the Simpsons -- Burns learns that everyone hates him until he gets a Coke -- another ad shows a young sleepwalker braving the dangers of Africa to get a chilled Coke.
"We feel the Super Bowl is one of those iconic moments" that helps Coke burnish its brand and draw attention to its corporate giving and charitable partnerships, Katie Bayne, chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola North America, said Wednesday in a webcast. "As far as our competitor choosing to go somewhere else, we'll miss them. At the same time, I know they have other things planned. We have been planning on the Super Bowl for a long time."
Coca-Cola is using the Super Bowl to tout its charitable efforts. It is using Facebook to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, promising to give $1 to the group every time Facebook users give a digital Coke bottle to a friend. Coke will also match monetary donations, "points" from mycokewards.com and community service time for the clubs.
Meanwhile, PepsiCo insists that its retrenchment on the broadcast is not related to Coca-Cola's presence, or with the Super Bowl's value as a marketing vehicle. The company is trying to draw attention to the Pepsi Refresh Project, an online charitable portal where visitors can vote on which projects should get a slice of a $20 million grant from PepsiCo.
"The Pepsi Refresh Project is about a movement, not a moment," said Peter Land, senior vice president of communications at PepsiCo Americas Beverages. The company is looking to spread its media spending by advertising on a higher number of smaller venues.
"The Super Bowl is a great platform for the right brand at the right time," Land said. "Our decision is in no way a knock on the Super Bowl at all."
The game brings the mixed blessing of lots of attention and scrutiny from journalists, casual viewers and panels -- the most prominent of which, the USA Today Ad Meter, is obsessively watched by ad agencies.
On the Super Bowl, "you get a lot of attention, which is good," said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. But if a company's commercials don't measure up, he said, it's all out there in full view of the public.
"In the past couple of years, Pepsi has struggled to put on great, creative [commercials]," Calkins said. "Some would argue that Coke has done a better job."
PepsiCo denies it was spooked by fears that it wouldn't win in the morning-after polls. The company said it decided to redirect its Super Bowl spending away from beverages months ago, before its Super Bowl campaign was in full swing.
With or without Pepsi, the commercials will be closely watched. More than half of Super Bowl viewers enjoy the game’s ads more than the action on the field, according to a survey of 25,000 households by Nielsen Co. It represents "the largest television audience year in, year out," said John Swallen, senior vice president for research at TNS Media Intelligence. "Bigger than the Olympics, bigger than the Academy Awards."
Historically, PepsiCo has been a dominant advertiser for the game. Between 1999 and 2008, Pepsico spent about $143 million on Super Bowl advertising, according to TNS Media Intelligence, ranking behind only Anheuser-Busch during that span. Coca-Cola, absent from the game for most of that time, spent an estimated $30.5 million.
Pepsi's move to not advertise its soft drinks was a surprise, Swallen said. "The soft drinks had always been the cornerstone. To pull up roots and give up that inventory, that is surprising."
Will the absence of Pepsi's drinks on the broadcast gives Coca-Cola a better chance to resonate with viewers?
"Coke has a great opportunity to stand out," Calkins said. "Pepsi is walking away from the biggest marketing event of the year."
Dr Pepper Snapple Group will also air ads this year, using KISS frontman Gene Simmons -- aka "Dr. Love" -- to advertise the new Dr Pepper Cherry.
"Pepsi's withdrawal will just be another opportunity to demonstrate that there are still people lining up to pay their money and play on this stage," Swallen said. "The Super Bowl still sells out."
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