Some Super Bowl Ads Backfire
Jan. 20, 1998
NEW YORK (AP) _ Holiday Inn had high hopes a year ago for its Super Bowl commercial underscoring the hotel chain's $1 billion makeover.
Designed to grab attention in the most competitive commercial environment on television, the ad showed a beautiful woman shocking a classmate by showing up at a reunion of the high school she attended before undergoing the ultimate personal overhaul _ a sex change operation.
Holiday Inn executives expected people would get a chuckle and check out what it had done to change the looks of the aging hotel chain. But some viewers weren't amused and within 48 hours of the commercial's debut, Holiday Inn scrapped plans to keep running the ad.
``People definitely noticed it,'' says Craig Smith, a spokesman for Atlanta-based chain. ``But some objected to the subject matter. Once we found the metaphor was offensive, we thought the best tactic was to remove that metaphor from use.''
Holiday Inn's experience illustrates there are risks as well as rewards at stake for advertisers paying huge sums for a few moments in the spotlight during a program that usually draws the year's biggest TV audience.
Ads on this year's Super Bowl on Sunday sold out two months ago at $2.6 million per minute _ the highest priced commercial time ever on television.
Apple Computer Inc. hit both extremes in the mid-1980s when its ``1984'' commercial that introduced its Macintosh computer became a Super Bowl ad classic but its ``Lemmings'' ad a year later showing business executives following each other off a cliff was roundly panned.
``When you get caught up in this kind of thing, you tend to look for something that is different, that will stick out and be remembered,'' said Scott Purvis, who heads a New Jersey-based advertising research firm. ``But you don't want to leave people with a negative impression.''
His firm, Gallup & Robinson Inc., has been conducting telephone surveys of Super Bowl viewers the day after the game for the past seven years and last year's survey found the Holiday Inn ad irritated a lot of people.
Purvis said 16 percent of those surveyed said they strongly disliked the commercial, the highest negative response the firm has found for a Super Bowl ad.
The Holiday Inn ad wasn't the only Super Bowl commercial that was yanked earlier than expected from repeat performances soon after its debut.
The Cadillac division of General Motors Corp. created a fantasy ad that ran on the same telecast featuring model Cindy Crawford as a bored princess who leapt at the chance to escape her castle in a new Catera.
The commercial sparked debate within the company that sexy supermodel was the wrong messenger for getting businesswomen interested in the $30,000 car, said Cadillac spokeswoman Julie Hamp.
Cadillac heard no complaints from consumers, but Hamp said there were worries inside Cadillac the ad could be alienating some prime prospects.
``We have no regrets about it,'' Hamp said. ``But we always learn from our experiences.''
The makers of Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners got an earful in a letter from the late Fred Astaire's daughter, who objected to three Super Bowl ads that made it look like Astaire was using vacuums as props in dance routines.
Ava McKenzie wrote Royal Appliance Manufacturing Co. that its ``paltry, unconscionable commercials are the antithesis of everything my lovely, gentle father represented.'' She also sent a copy of the letter to a columnist at Daily Variety, which published it.
But the Cleveland-based company said the ads were made with the blessings of Astaire's widow and McKenzie's step-mother, Robyn Astaire, who has the sole right to make such decisions about Fred Astaire's image.
Consumers liked the ads, said Deborah Holtkamp, director of advertising for the Dirt Devil brand. She said sales of Dirt Devil upright vacuums, which were pitched in one of the ads, rose 7 percent in the first nine months of 1997 while sales of uprights overall were down industrywide. She said the company got about a dozen complaints by mail about the ads but an equal number of plaudits.
Royal Appliance made two additional ads with clips from classic Astaire films later in the year and plans to use all five ads at various times this year although not on the Super Bowl.
Which ads will cause controversy on this year's Super Bowl game?
Nike Inc. may be risking some backlash by using unclothed athletes like basketball's David Robinson and runner Suzy Hamilton for ads that illustrate the advantages of its athletic apparel.
But controversy could arise unexpectedly as well. The admakers for Holiday Inn and Cadillac Catera each said the objections generated to their ads were not mentioned by people who participated in pre-Super Bowl tests of the commercials.
``You learn from experience but you're never going to please everybody,'' said Smith of Holiday Inn.