Super Bowl commercials going for £1.4m for 30-second slot

The American football Super Bowl is almost as eagerly awaited by US television viewers for the commercials shown during the breaks as it is for the action on the pitch.

Well, all right, that might be an exaggeration, given the sport's fanatic following. But the annual tradition of advertisers debuting glitzy new commercials during the game has turned Super Bowl into the most lucrative night of the year for its broadcaster, which this year is Rupert Murdoch's Fox channel.

Despite a looming consumer downturn, 2008 is proving no exception.

Already the ad industry is abuzz with rumours about who will be debuting new commercials and who will have the ads most talked about around the water coolers the next morning. Most important of all for Fox, Super Bowl XLII on 3 February has defied predictions to set a new record for the price advertisers are willing to pay for a 30-second slot.

This year, with just one of the 63 slots left to fill, that average price is estimated at $2.7m (£1.4m), up from $2.6m last time round. Analysts say the price has been pushed inexorably higher because of changing viewing habits that mean the Super Bowl is one of the few remaining times when an otherwise increasingly-fragmented TV audience comes together to watch a single programme. More than 93 million people watched last year's broadcast on CBS, the second largest audience in the event's history.

This year, the slots are even more desirable because the Hollywood writers' strike has decimated the rest of the TV schedules.

Ever since Apple launched its Macintosh computer with a pastiche of George Orwell's 1984 during the Super Bowl, ad agencies have vied to outdo each other with impressive ads, either lavishing money on high production values or a celebrity endorsement, or simply going for a belly laugh.

Car companies are again among those bidding highest for slots, with General Motors and Toyota having signed up to debut commercials. Coca-Cola and arch-rival Pepsi will face off in the battle to impress viewers. And movie studios are planning early trailers for films they hope will become this year's summer blockbusters.

And then there are more mundane products that need a mass marketing push. Proctor & Gamble has reportedly paid among the highest bids for a slot to big up its Tide To Go instant stain remover. "The Super Bowl is the one time you watch a show and don't want to miss the commercial breaks," Suzanne Watson, Tide's North American brand manager told The New York Times. "With Tide to Go right there, you don't have to get up to clean your shirt or pants."

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