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Did the Super Bowl TV ads hit pay dirt? Agencies say yes, even at $1 million a minute; but ratings went downhill

At times, 110 million Americans were watching Super Bowl XIX. That was the reason ABC Sports paid $15 million for the right to broadcast the game. And that was the reason Madison Avenue coaxed its clients into paying as much as a million dollars a minute to hawk goods and services during the game. Was the price worth it?

In the aftermath of the game, advertising executives strongly contend the outlay was worth the exposure. But that appears to depend on whether the ad was aired during the early moments of the game or at the close. There are indications, moreover, that at the million-dollar-a-minute level, resistance to price increases during future Super Bowls is building.

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The more frequently purchased 30-second spot during the Super Bowl was priced at $525,000. To get an idea of the size of the increase, a 30-second spot on last year's Super Bowl went for $445,000, and in 1975 the same spot could be bought by advertisers for around $100,000.

Not too surprisingly, ABC raised hackles with its higher prices. Instead of rushing to sign up, advertisers complained vocally about the prices. ABC reported it had ``avails,'' or commercial time not under option or contract, which remained unsold up until just a few days before the game -- a most unusual situation for a Super Bowl broadcast.

Chevrolet was one of last year's Super Bowl sponsors to balk this time. ABC eventually filled this advertising hole with three other automotive advertisers: Ford, Nissan-Datsun, and Volkswagen. In the end, ABC sold all the 25 minutes of commercial time it had scheduled, plus 24 minutes of commercial spots at a lower rate during the nearly three hours of pregame and postgame activity.

Determining whether the cost was worth it to advertisers is, at best, an inexact science. The only real yardstick is audience ratings.

Before the Super Bowl, ABC had projected a 40 to 45 rating for the broadcast -- that is, 40 to 45 percent of US homes with television would have them turned on and tuned into the game. When the ratings came in, they averaged 46.6.

But that was not the whole story: Ratings went from an all-time Super Bowl high of 48.7 early in the game to 45.6 during the fourth period to a 30.6 average during the postgame segment.

More than half a dozen first-time advertisers were on Super Bowl XIX. As many as 12 more introduced new products or aired new commercials. Commercial production costs ran as much as another half-million dollars for many of these companies. The Canned Foods Information Council used the occasion to introduce a commercial featuring a computer-generated robot. Diet Coke had two spots ready -- one featuring the winning 49ers, the other the losing Miami Dolphins -- and called a last-minute option play with the 49er spot in the postgame portion.

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Newcomer ITT ran a 30-second spot introducing a new automatic braking system. VITT Media International, a New York-based media buying agency that purchased the spot for ITT, secured a first-quarter time slot for the company. VITT group vice-president John Power says the 30-second ITT spot ``certainly did for them what ITT had in mind. ITT wanted maximum exposure for introducing a technologically sophisticated product in a favorable climate. And that's what they got. It looks like the ratings will surpass what we hoped for.''

Perhaps no other Super Bowl sponsor generated as much pregame excitement as did Apple Computer. In last year's broadcast it had used a television commercial entitled ``1984'' to slam the world of big-brother automation and to announce the Macintosh, its new personal computer.

This year, Apple at first reserved a one-minute time slot to run its latest swipe at IBM. Chiat/Day, its advertising agency, had produced this spot at a reported cost of $600,000. Then the order was canceled. It was on again, off again up to the last minute, with the highest levels of both Apple and Chiat/Day engaging in the debate. On the Friday before the Super Bowl, Apple announced it had purchased time during the game's fourth quarter to air the spot.

``The problem was primarily a scheduling problem,'' Jay Chiat, chairman and chief executive officer of the agency, told the Monitor. ``But I think Apple made the right decision.''

As it was, the Apple commercial ran during the fourth quarter, when, with the 49ers walking away with the game, the television audience was drifting away from the tube. But even if it lost some of that 100 million audience, industry sources say Apple may have received ``a big discount'' by buying the slot at the last minute.

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