Dot-Coms Betting Big Bucks on Super Bowl Sunday

During the 1984 Super Bowl, Apple Computer launched the Macintosh with an ad that many advertising aficionados consider to be the best ever created. Since that time, daring companies have viewed the Super Bowl as the perfect venue at which to launch an “impact” product or service.

The Super Bowl and the audacious world of dot-com companies now seem almost made for each other. Last year, a few unknown dot-coms, most notably Monster.com, surprised the world with their ads about online services. This year, about 20 dot-coms — including more than half a dozen new e-commerce start-ups — have purchased ads at the rate of $2.2 million (US$) per 30 second spot.

An estimated 130 million Americans and 800 million viewers in some 180 countries worldwide are expected to tune in to the Super Bowl. The game is expected to be broadcast in 24 different languages during the play-by-play.

While running an ad at the Super Bowl is obviously attractive — with the potential to jump start a cyberspace start-up, it can also be a reckless move that amounts to little more than shuffling the money received from venture capitalists into the coffers of the ABC television network.

Start of a Big Bucks Campaign, Not the End

According to GartnerGroup, an e-commerce company has to make the Super Bowl the start of major advertising campaign, rather than the central focus of their advertising strategy. GartnerGroup cites Monster.com as an example of successfully using the Super Bowl.

According to the GartnerGroup, Monster.com advertised steadily during the year — with the Super Bowl representing only nine percent of its total budget — and grew from three million visits monthly when it launched its Super Bowl ad to 10 million at the end of the year.

So Who Are the Brave or Foolhardy Ones This Year?

Depending upon your perspective, the brave or foolhardy e-commerce start-up companies that are taking the Super Bowl plunge this year are Autotrader.com, OurBeginning.com, LastMinuteTravel.com, Computer.com, and Netpliance.com. In addition, several established e-commerce firms like Pets.com and WebMD are also expected to have ads.

Other dot-coms include job search firms Monster.com, HotJobs.com and newcomer Kforce.com, as well as financial services firms DowJones.com, Charles Schwab, E-Trade and start-up OnMoney.com, and lifestyle firms LifeMinder.com and Britannica.com.

So Who Are the Best E-Commerce Super Bowl Bets This Year?

Picking the best bets is tough, especially since the companies can mess up by not being ready when the call comes. Last year, for example, Victoria’s Secret ran an ad promoting an online fashion show. The site crashed during the show, causing great embarrassment to Victoria’s Secret, although it had relatively minor financial impact.

Monster.com, for that matter, was also flooded by activity that slowed down its site for days after the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, Monster.com unquestionably benefited from the experience.

This year, the best e-commerce start-up bet seems to be Netpliance.com, which is introducing a $199 Internet access machine that lets users surf the Net, send e-mail and shop at its own Mall. While the machine has goodies like an 800 x 600 color screen, it cannot display Web sites that incorporate sophisticated Java, Flash or Shockwave code.

Netpliance.com’s other downside is that it charges $21.95 per month for Internet access, so it remains to be seen if consumers will pay a relatively high monthly fee for a machine that cannot display the best the Net has to offer.

Other Contenders Are Long-Shots

Computer.com and Autotrader.com are long-shots. Autotrader.com still must prove that people will buy used cars over the Internet, while Computer.com is launching in the busy space of selling computers over the Internet.

GartnerGroup, furthermore, questions whether online stationery store OurBeginning.com and travel store LastMinuteTravel.com are well-funded enough to take advantage of the momentum that they will get from a surge of traffic on Super Bowl Sunday.

In the final analysis, for an e-commerce start-up to take out a Super Bowl ad is a risky adventure at best and probably a lot closer to foolhardy. Unless there are several spectacular success stories, however, this may be the last year that so many start-ups take the $2.2 million plunge that evaporates into air in 30 seconds.

Next year, the best bet is that venture capital investors are going to insist that companies find better ways to spend their money than taking a shot at a Super Bowl ad.

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