While the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos battle on the gridiron Sunday in Super Bowl XXXII, an equally fierce competition will play out during commercial breaks.
The three largest credit card brands-Visa U.S.A., MasterCard International, and American Express Co.-have bought air time on the Super Bowl broadcast, the world's most-watched television event and the costliest to advertisers.
Each archrival has much to gain if its Super Bowl ads are well received. In particular, MasterCard hired a new advertising agency last year and trotted forth a new campaign in October; a strong Super Bowl showing could bolster its efforts to create stronger brand identity, industry sources said.
"It's a premier place for advertisers, a place to make a statement," said James Shanahan, a partner at Business Dynamics Consulting Inc., Newark, Del. "The Super Bowl has been the venue in which Amex and Visa have been carrying out their catfight over the last eight years or so."
Visa is the official corporate sponsor of the Super Bowl and the National Football League-an expensive yet prized endorsement package that gives it a leg up in promoting its name at the event. Last year Visa made a big impression when it unveiled a commercial for the Visa Check card starring Bob Dole, the retired senator and former presidential candidate.
American Express also places great stock in the Super Bowl: It traditionally buys a block of good seats to entertain top clients and a few lucky platinum cardmembers. A few years back, Amex explicitly tweaked Visa in a Super Bowl ad that featured "Saturday Night Live" comedians Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey: one as Visa cardholder denied entrance to the game, the other as an American Express customer who got in and had a grand time.
This year, with all three card brands heavily promoting platinum and other products, some people are as eager to see the commercials as the yardage triumphs of Brett Favre and John Elway. Though all the companies are somewhat guarded about their plans, observers are anticipating creative wizardry and some new product announcements.
"The 'advertising bowl' to the advertising community is almost as important as who's playing in the game to a sports fan," said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL. "The Super Bowl is often used to launch a new product or create some kind of brand consciousness."
Mr. McCarthy called the Super Bowl the "largest single day event in the world," with 130 million viewers in the United States and 800 million worldwide. "It is the showcase event for advertisers to reach the largest audience in one shot," he said.
It is also the priciest: A 30-second commercial cost $1.3 million this year, up from $1.2 million last year. That makes this year's Super Bowl "the highest cost per second in television history," according to Mr. McCarthy.
Nicholas A. Utton, MasterCard's senior vice president of marketing for the U.S. region, said his company will air two 30-second spots, one in the first quarter and one in the third. Both were created by MasterCard's new agency, McCann-Erickson of New York, which the association is relying on to spruce up its once-lackluster advertising effort. Both ads will make their debuts at the Super Bowl and run regularly though the year.
MasterCard's first-quarter commercial, entitled "India," will promote platinum cards and will feature "real-life people explaining or conveying a priceless moment as part of a couple's existence," Mr. Utton said. The ad was shot in "an exotic location" by an "outstanding film director," the same one who shot MasterCard's "Opera" spot.
The third-quarter commercial, "Zipper," is aimed at people in their early 20s. Shot in Los Angeles this month and still being completed this week, the ad "has an element of humor" and captures "a priceless moment that will certainly connect with the target audience" and older people, Mr. Utton said.
Extensive "qualitative and quantitative research" went into the development of these spots, Mr. Utton said. "We want to be the Coca-Cola of currency," he said. "Coming up with advertising that connects with consumers, we can be very effective for our member banks."
Visa has purchased a full 60 seconds in the first quarter of the game, leading some observers to believe the association intends to launch a product. Visa will say little about the commercial, which was made by BBDO New York.
"All I can tell you is it features an elephant," said Sue Haxager, senior vice president and senior account director at BBDO. "Our spot this year will not be tied to football."
Ms. Haxager said, "We generally debut a new execution on the Super Bowl, but you'll always see it in heavy rotation after the Super Bowl. It's an ongoing spot that fits in our product campaign."
Michael Beindorff, Visa U.S.A.'s executive vice president of marketing, would not discuss the content of this year's spot, but cited last year's as an example of what can be accomplished.
"The Super Bowl allows us to talk to more people at one time than any other broadcast on earth," he said. "We can use it to make a statement like we did with Bob Dole, where the message was, 'debit is a mainstream product.'"
The lighthearted portrayal of Mr. Dole's return to his hometown in Kansas and his easy use of a Visa check card won high ratings in morning- after newspaper analyses, and awards followed.
"The Super Bowl is about more than a rating-look at the anticipation," said Rebecca Saeger, who joined Visa U.S.A. as executive vice president of brand management last year, after working in ad agencies for clients like Pacific Bell and American Express. "Coming up with new 'creative' is a marketer's challenge. Everybody is under the microscope."
"We will do pretty well with our one minute," said Mr. Beindorff. Visa's minute will cost $2.5 million.
Ms. Saeger said she does not anticipate a guerilla advertising attack from American Express. The travel and entertainment card leader apparently put all its energies into the National Football Conference playoff coverage on the Fox and NBC networks, where it bought "category exclusivity," blocking out any competing brand.
American Express used its "category exclusivity" to debut an ad in which comedian Jerry Seinfeld chats with a cartoon Superman and rescues Lois Lane after she has forgotten her wallet at a store.
An American Express spokeswoman, Gail Wasserman, said the AFC and NFC championships were "a great stage to debut that commercial, and we had other spots that we were running during those games."
Mr. Seinfeld has also appeared in other Amex commercials, including one shot at a gas station and one in a supermarket.
American Express is maintaining complete secrecy on its Super Bowl strategy. Ms. Wasserman would not confirm that the company has bought air time, and would not say whether the Seinfeld/Superman spot would appear.
According to industry experts, other companies that are planning to advertise during the Super Bowl include AT&T, Federal Express, Pepsi-Cola, Oracle Corp., and Anheuser-Busch.
Along with the rich history of memorable Super Bowl ads-the "Bud Bowl" commercial for Budweiser beer, Apple Computer Inc.'s introduction of the Macintosh brand-is a tradition of pre-game speculation about the ads, and morning-after commentary about the winners and losers.
"This is like handicapping horses," said Mr. Shanahan, the consultant, who previously worked in marketing at MasterCard and American Express.
Mr. Shanahan said MasterCard will be the company to watch, since "they're the ones that have the most on the line." Visa wants to "do something new," he said, and American Express has "always been in there."
"If they just drag out another Jerry Seinfeld ad, it's not going to be too impressive," Mr. Shanahan said.
Frances Dale, president of a Sterling, Va.-based marketing and consulting firm called Entandem, said Super Bowl advertisers need to do "something really amazing for it to have a lingering effect."
"Last year was a dud," Ms. Dale said. "The Bob Dole commerical was the only thing that was good."
Others agreed with Ms. Dale. Advertising Age magazine declared last year's ads a "Super Bust."
The good news was for Mr. Dole, whose role in the Visa commercial turned him into a desired product spokesman. He will appear in a spot for Dunkin' Donuts, and has signed a contract with International Management Group of Cleveland to negotiate endorsement deals.
Though there has been "a lot of hype" about the innovations planned for this year's game, Ms. Dale was skeptical. "If last year was any indication, I suspect you'll see people making a lot of refrigerator runs."