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Ad Sales for Olympic Games Happily Surprise NBC

REMEMBER the millionaire who surprised Auntie Mame by leaving a cab with the meter running in the middle of the Depression? Well, in one of the worst advertising markets since then, the three NBC networks carrying the Winter Olympic Games have run up a surprisingly robust $720 million on the sales meter for commercial time during the 375.5 hours of coverage from Salt Lake City starting tonight.

"We're happily at our goal" with commercial time on CNBC, MSNBC and NBC "virtually sold out" through the closing ceremonies on Feb. 24, said Randy Falco, president of the NBC Television Network division of NBC in New York, part of the General Electric Company.

"We went through some incredible frustrations and turns first the economy, then the terrible Sept. 11 disaster," he added. "So to reach this is one of the more extraordinary things I've seen."

For all that, "Happy Days Are Here Again" is unlikely to become the official song of the Games. Had the economy been less depressed, commercial time would probably have been sold faster and at higher prices than the estimated average rate of $600,000 for each 30-second spot in prime time. Also, in adspeak, "virtually" sold out, which translates into about 98 percent of all available commercial time, means that a marketer still eager to spend money can be accommodated, just as Fox Broadcasting did for several last-minute advertisers during Super Bowl XXXVI on Sunday.

Indeed, the proximity of the Super Bowl to the start of the Winter Games had initially been considered a drawback to commercial sales for both, along with the national economic woes and the uncertain mood after Sept. 11. One negative, though, seems to be becoming a positive for the Olympics: the patriotism generated by the terrorist attacks is intensifying the typical nationalistic fervor felt whenever the Games are held in the United States.

"Americans always pull for the home team," said Dale Hayes, vice president for brand management and customer communications at United Parcel Service in Atlanta, which is introducing a campaign carrying the theme "What can brown do for you?"

"The circumstances may heighten that national interest and pride, which could lead to higher viewership than was planned," Mr. Hayes said. "And that could be wonderful from an advertising perspective." The campaign is the first for United Parcel by the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., part of the Partnership division of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

"Given everything going on around us, the Winter Games on American soil the home-court advantage, so to speak may be wonderful from an advertising and marketing perspective," said Marc Goldstein, president for national broadcast and programming at Mindshare in New York, the media services agency owned by the WPP Group.

That anticipation, he added, is in stark contrast to the disappointment suffered by advertisers when the NBC coverage of the Summer Games in 2000 drew record low ratings in prime time. That shortfall led NBC to concentrate large parts of its ambitious promotional campaign for the Winter Games on drawing viewers ages 18 to 34 famously desired by advertisers, but notoriously hard to reach with fast-paced, irreverent commercials celebrating young American Olympic athletes.

"The real lesson of Sydney was don't take the Olympics for granted," said John Miller, who with Vince Manze is co-president of the NBC Agency, which creates campaigns for all three networks. "There's a difference between people over 35 and younger, and you have to target all demographics to succeed."

"The only stone we've left unturned is getting Jeff Gillooly to come and hit someone on the knee," he added, laughing, referring to the former husband of Tonya Harding jailed for the Nancy Kerrigan clubbing incident, which helped lure enormous audiences to watch the 1994 Winter Games.

Among other blue-chip advertisers joining United Parcel during the 17 days of coverage: AT&T, promoting a new flat-rate domestic long-distance calling plan; Bank of America; Campbell Soup; Coca-Cola, with commercials for Coca-Cola Classic, Dasani and Diet Coke from several agencies; Delta Air Lines; Eastman Kodak; Electronic Data Systems which skipped the Super Bowl for the Olympics; Hallmark Cards; Home Depot; McDonald's; Nike; Office Depot; Sprint PCS; and Xerox.

"Economies go up and economies go down and you never know which way they go, so we don't cut back advertising because of the economy," said Bruce Nelson, chairman and chief executive at Office Depot in Delray Beach, Fla., which will run additional commercials from its current humorous campaign, which carries the theme "What you need. What you need to know."

As for the light-hearted nature of the spots, "There still has to be a way for people to have a little fun in the otherwise serious world in which we live," Mr. Nelson said. "We're trying to be careful and do it with taste and judgment." The commercials are by the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group.

Several humorous, emotional commercials for Coke Classic, developed before Sept. 11, will "talk about the human connection and the refreshment of the human spirit, which are especially important right now," said Steve Hutcherson, brand business unit manager at Coca-Cola North America in Atlanta.

Though Coke Classic has American roots, he added, "that did not lead us down the path to overt patriotism or flag-waving" because the brand is sold globally and the Games are intended "for all people."

Coca-Cola did not run commercials during the Super Bowl, but many advertisers that did will be back for the Olympics, that other midwinter festival of sports and commerce. Among them are: AT&T Wireless, continuing the talked-about "Welcome to mlife" campaign by the New York office of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, part of WPP; Anheuser-Busch; General Motors (news/quote), for 2002 and 2003 models sold by divisions like Cadillac, Chevrolet and Saturn; the Monster.com unit of TMP Worldwide (news/quote); Charles Schwab & Company; Visa; and Volkswagen.

Having both "big events" at practically the same time appealed to Anheuser-Busch, said Tony Ponturo, vice president for global media and sports marketing in St. Louis, because the one-two punch "gets our year kicked off in a great way."

"For the Super Bowl and Olympics, we've been the exclusive beer sponsor for some time," he added. "They're two major properties our competition doesn't have, and that helps differentiate us." Anheuser- Busch will be selling beers like Budweiser and Bud Light as well as a new malt beverage, Bacardi Silver, being produced with Bacardi.

Whether Anheuser-Busch will run during the Games the contentious Super Bowl spot that showed the Budweiser Clydesdales bowing in a salute to New York City could not be determined. A company spokesman, Bill Etling, said he could not make other executives available because they were unhappy with some critical comments this columnist made about that commercial and others the company ran in the Super Bowl.

It will be fascinating to watch whether Anheuser-Busch and the other Olympic advertisers will try to capitalize on terror and war with patriotic peddling, jingoistic jingles or worst yet, exploitive commercials that will be perceived as patridiotic.


By Stuart Elliott, The New York Times February 6, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.