A Game by Any Other Name Sells as Sweet

Advertisers make an end run around the trademarked Super Bowl.
Advertisers make an end run around the trademarked Super Bowl. (The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Call it the Championship, the Big Kahuna and, most certainly, the Big Game. It doesn't matter what you call the Super Bowl.

Unless you're an advertiser. Then, actually, it does.

"Don't just watch the Big Game," advises Dell Computers in its catalogue, "have an XL Experience."

"There's only one Big Game on TV, and it's on 'Family Guy'!" Fox enthuses in a promo for the animated sitcom.

"Call today to watch The Big Game in HDTV," headlines Comcast, in a mailer.

This is, of course, the poor man's -- or maybe the wise man's -- Super Bowl advertising. Because advertisers cannot say "Super Bowl" or show NFL team logos unless they've paid millions of dollars to the NFL, they've learned to weasel around such restrictions, inventing such generic, non-actionable concepts as "the Big Game."

Radio Shack's latest ad circular touts "The Big Game blowout." The theme for Best Buy's promotion is the "Big Game Gear Up." Circuit City promises, "Guaranteed delivery before the Big Game." Each ad carries "action" photos of generic football players, who appear to be members of the Team From Nowhere. Maybe they're the Big Game players.

In advertising parlance, this is "ambush marketing," or piggybacking an event without paying for the official right to do so. The Super Bowl is, of course, the Super Bowl ® of ambush marketing. Dozens of companies, large and small, come right to the legal edge of the NFL's copyrights, without trespassing on them. The game -- the big game -- is so much a part of American culture that it's easy, and highly cost-effective, to suggest "Super Bowl" without saying it.

All an advertiser needs to do to conjure an instant association is to employ such wording as "the Big Game" or "super" ("Super Eating for a Super Party," says a Perdue chicken ad) and picture a few people in shoulder pads and helmets. Hiring a well-known NFL player helps, too. Papa John's uses Dan Marino as its spokesmodel in a new promotion (free large pizzas all around if a quarterback in "the Big Game on Sunday, February 5" throws a touchdown pass longer than 85 yards). Is Papa John's an official licensee or sponsor of the NFL? Well, no, but you don't have to know that.

Ambush marketing is legal, as long as an advertiser doesn't infringe on any trademarked words (such as "Super Bowl" or "Seattle Seahawks" or even "Super Sunday") or copyrighted symbols ( such as the NFL's "shield" logo). According to guidelines written by Leventhal, Senter & Lerman, a Washington law firm that represents broadcasters, it's permissible to use such phrases as "the professional football championship game," as well as the date of the game, the name of the cities of the competing teams ("Pittsburgh vs. Seattle") but not the team names ("Pittsburgh Steelers"). The firm also advises, "You can make fun of the fact that you cannot say the phrase 'Super Bowl' (e.g., by bleeping it out)."

None of those restrictions, however, applies to news organizations, whose use of copyrighted terms are legally protected. The NFL also has no say over advertisers that buy time during the Big Game (current price tag: $2.5 million per 30-second ad), as long as the commercials do not imply an association with the league that doesn't exist.

Even though the NFL has been chasing big-game ambushers for decades, the practice "continues to be a big problem," says Gary Gertzog, the league's general counsel and senior vice president of business affairs. As the game "gets bigger and bigger," he says, marketers "want to borrow our equity." That's a polite, lawyerly way of saying "cash in on the NFL's brand name without paying for it."

So the league employs teams of lawyers to hunt down the unauthorized and unlicensed. It finds miscreants through a loose network of informants -- sponsors, broadcasters, even news reporters -- and lets them know what they're in for (a lawsuit) if they don't cease and desist. Usually, the targets are small fish (among others, the NFL is after a Detroit club that is advertising a Super Bowl party featuring porn star Jenna Jameson), but a whale is out there. In 1999, the league won a court case against Coors, prohibiting the beer maker from calling itself "the Official Beer of NFL Players," a designation Coors had licensed from the NFL Players Association. Coors has made peace with the NFL; the company paid a reported $240 million in 2001 to become the league's official beer, a contract renewed this season.

Not everyone has gotten the message. Centex Homes ran full-page ads in The Washington Post and other newspapers last week with headlines reading, "This Sunday some will plan a Super Bowl party." A spokesman for Centex said the company's ad agency was unaware that "Super Bowl" is a copyrighted phrase. He said the reference would be changed.

But in the complicated crosscurrents of licensing deals, there's nothing the league can do to stop a promotional end around. General Motors might be an official vehicle sponsor of the Super Bowl, but this weekend's Super Bowl will be at Detroit's Ford Field, named by, and for, one of GM's top domestic rivals.

The big question is, is it really worth paying a few million dollars to be the "official" whatever when you can pay nothing and still get the point across? Do people buy more potato chips or pizzas from the NFL-authorized Super Bowl sponsors than from the plain old, Brand-X "Big Game" kind? Will consumers know, for example, that Coors is the NFL's official beermaker when Budweiser and Bud Light ads will dominate during the game's broadcast?

Perhaps predictably, Gertzog says yes. "The proof is always in the numbers," he says, meaning the $330 million that all sponsors -- including Samsung and Campbell's Soup -- have handed over to the NFL this year in Super Bowl licensing deals. And fans, he asserts, react more favorably to seeing real players, rather than knockoffs, in the ads: "The word you keep hearing is 'authenticity.' Being a sponsor gives you a tremendous level of authenticity."

True or not, the name game will continue. Coming next month: The Games. Of Winter. Come on down for our gold-medal savings. We think you know what we mean.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company