Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
INDIANAPOLIS (TheStreet) — When Infiniti interrupts March Madness for the 380th time to tell fans about their M-class’ forest-breeze air conditioning, silver-dust polished wood trim and hybrid technology, they’re only doing it because they care — about getting fans to plunk down $50,000 on a car.The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a long haul as it is, but subjecting fans to the same series of commercials every weekend for roughly a month can make the road from the First Four to the Final Four seem interminable for the event’s captive audience. For sponsors and networks, however, that road is paved by millions of viewers, laid with of billions of dollars in cash stretching into a monthlong steam of revenue well worth the toll.
March Madness generated $4.8 billion in ad revenue within the past decade, according to Kantar Media. Tournament ads brought in more than $643 million from 102 advertisers in 2008 and rebounded from a recession-suppressed $589 million year in 2009 to draw $613 million from only 82 companies last year. Of that, roughly $37 million (or 5.7%) comes from online advertising on the NCAA’s March Madness on Demand streaming service.
As a postseason sporting event, the NCAA men’s tournament ranked second last year only to the $794 million brought in by the NFL’s playoffs and Super Bowl and outperformed its professional counterparts in the NBA playoffs by more than $200 milllion. It’s why CBS(CBS ) and Time Warner’s(TWX ) Turner Sports’ 14-year deal for exclusive broadcast rights cost them $10.8 billion — with rates for 30-second ads already topping $1.2 million last year — and why NCAA “Corporate Champions” AT&T(T ), Coca-Cola(K ) and Capital One(COF ) have spent more than $85 million on March Madness advertising last year alone.
Corporate partners get only a slight discount, as last year’s second-tier sponsors Lowe’s and Southwest Airlines spent nearly $42 million to get college basketball fans to stock up on sod and cheap tickets to Spokane. With Infiniti, Unilever(UN ), UPS(UPS ) and others each hoping to be the corporate Cinderella story of this year’s tournament, each risks becoming as overexposed as Jimmer Fredette by the time the Final Four tips off. TheStreet took a long look at its corporate bracket and came up with five companies whose March Madness marketing will make viewers miserable by April. No matter how this Final Five shakes out, we guarantee fans will be upset:
Because of a rule change during the offseason requiring NCAA approval of all basketball uniforms, jerseys can now sport the previously taboo manufacturer’s logo. While not really affecting much of anything within the game itself, the change did Nike a big favour heading into March Madness, where 51 of the 68 schools in the tournament field wear Nike or its subsidiary Jordan brand jerseys. For a bit of perspective on how big a coup this is for the folks in Beaverton, Ore., consider that Adidas is the next biggest apparel supplier in the field and has only 10 teams’ jerseys as display space.
It’s even more of a Nikefest now that 14 of the teams in the tournament’s Sweet 16 are wearing the swoosh on their shirts. Fans and NCAA sponsors could get all lathered up about what seems like millions of dollars in free publicity for a company that isn’t even one of the event’s big donors, but ethics issues aside it’s hard to get mad at Nike for pumping their product without pausing the action.
Applebee’sWhat’s a knockoff, really? Is it the bag you buy at your nail salon that has “Parradah” written on the nameplate because you didn’t want to shell out for the real thing? Is it that movie you bought from the supermarket bargain bin called Transmorphers that sounded close enough to Transformers and seemed “good enough” because it had a robot on the cover?
Or is it a company that’s just too cheap to splurge on an actual NCAA sponsorship that has to call the tournament “college hoops” and “March hoops” the way your local pizza and wings place calls the Super Bowl “the big game” just to duck the lawyers? Applebee’s and its parent company DineEquity(DIN ) aren’t the first to turn to ambush advertising to make a quick buck off an event they’re not invested in — NCAA non-partner GM(GM ) spent $47.2 million during the tournament last year without mentioning said tournament once — but they’re perhaps the least subtle about it.
Beyond their website’s schedule for watching “college hoops” at Applebee’s restaurants and their online bracket for the “2011 Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship” that flirts so hard with intellectual property infringement it may as well call it a cab and leave the bar now, DineEquity teamed up with March Madness broadcast bidding-war loser ESPN for a round-by-round fantasy pick ’em that in no way implies March’s inherent madness or the finality of the tournament’s resulting foursome. If the NCAA had a consolation round for Final Four advertisers, it might look something like this.
We realise nobody likes to be accused of making a knockoff and that it has to be an especially touchy subject for Applebee’s, whose stuff-on-the-walls approach to casual dining was implemented by T.G.I. Friday’s back in 1965, picked up by Ruby Tuesday’s(RT ) in 1972 and even co-opted by Bennigan’s in 1980 four years before the first Applebee’s opened. Want to make those nasty accusations go away? Stop hanging out with also-rans such as ESPN and start ponying up some money to play in The Big Dance.
Liberty MutualDuring the first viewing, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the latest ad in Liberty Mutual’s “Responsibility” series. It’s one act of kindness that spurs myriad others in a pay-it-forward chain of good will. It doesn’t even remotely imply anything about buying insurance. In many ways, it’s actually refreshing.
Then the next viewing comes and the baby’s scream in the supermarket scene becomes just a little louder. The guy’s sprint into beach traffic for a girl’s runaway tube seems a little forced, a little much. That door opening for the blind woman at the end seems a bit lazy and predictable.
Somewhere around the fourth game of the Round of 32, Ben Harper’s voice in the background becomes even more grating than the baby’s. Laura Dern actually signed on for a lifetime of that nasal hippie delivery? Everyone doing a “good deed” just starts to seem a little smug and self-important. You get the feeling that the old woman and her yard full of leaves would have gotten by just fine without the help of her busybody neighbour, who seemingly ignored her up to this point and didn’t seem to care so much about the leaf situation when she was riding her fancy-pants bicycle a couple of months before and couldn’t even stop over for a cup of coffee. What, you think you’re all better than me?
In this case, it’s not the commercial’s fault it’s so annoying. It’s Liberty Mutual’s for buying so much ad time and splitting this spot into little 15-, 30- and 60-second chunks and throwing them all over the game broadcast instead of maybe just spending the same amount on several different ads just so their ad that started off as a sweet little slice of humanity isn’t setting off barroom scrums by the time the championship game tips off.
Domino’sThere’s one sentence that should result in immediate and wholesale firings in a marketing group’s creative department if uttered about a March Madness ad campaign: “Hey, how about we create a bracket where, instead of teams, we have our ________!”
Bracket gimmicks are always a bad idea because A) Fans are already occupied with a bracket and B) They’re not ideas at all: Just regurgitated memes their creators hope will seem topical around tournament time, but just end up leaving their recipients feeling lame and uninspired. In Domino’s(DPZ ) case, the pizza purveyor created a Facebook app for its Pizza Bracket competition in which “16 pizzas will enter. One will win.” You can imagine the excitement around office water coolers across the country when the First Four came and went and everyone who picked “Pepperoni” to get to the next round was talking about their big win. What about all those alumni who are still paying student loans for MeatZZa, or who have their car painted with the ExtravaganZZa’s colours?
This really wouldn’t be so bad if Domino’s hadn’t struck a deal with Coca-Cola to become the NCAA’s “Official Pizza Sponsor,” usurping Papa John’s(PZZA ) and giving the pizza chain its first sports sponsorship in four years. We didn’t think you could sublet a sponsorship, but now that Coke’s made Domino’s the tournament’s pizza of record, that budget buy-in shouldn’t be an excuse for low-rent promotional retreads like this one. Were there a bracket for this year’s NCAA promotions, this one wouldn’t make it past the play-in round.
We understand: Every time a baby boomer gets a boo-boo, the rest of us have to hear about it in excruciating detail. First dad’s hair went away and we found out about Propecia. Then we discovered that dad and grandpa weren’t getting it done in the bedroom anymore and we were introduced to Viagra, Levitra, Cialis and Enzyte. Then Jamie Lee Curtis was spending too much time in the bathroom, so we got Activia.
Now we’re learning that because of rising obesity and metabolic syndrome, the gout is apparently something that’s happening again. Takeda Pharmaceutical feels the best way to spread the word is to have a boomer-aged American in its ads carrying a child-sized beaker of uric acid around Anytown U.S.A. He’s taking it on the bus, knocking on doors and doing just about everything except showing his disgustingly swollen foot to everyone he meets.
While we’re glad an entire generation is taking greater interest in its uric acid and giving gout a swift kick out of their lives, we have just two words for companies hoping their suffering will help their solvency: direct marketing. The friend or family member watching the tournament with us may very well be picking up what you’re putting down, but it would be much more palatable for all of us if they were picking it up in the privacy of their own home. Seriously, some of us are trying to win a pizza bracket here.
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