AOL Bets Big on the Big Game

America Online wants people to know that it’s as American as apple pie — and football.

“America Online is a very big brand,” said Len Short, executive vice president of brand marketing at the ISP. “We have a lot of customers, and they do very diverse things. But there are a couple of times of year when we’re all doing the same thing, like the Fourth of July and Super Bowl Sunday.”

That’s why Dulles, Va.-based AOL, a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Warner is expected to announce Wednesday that it has signed on as official presenting sponsor of “The AOL Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show,” to be produced by MTV. AOL will unveil a total of five new television commercials during the Super Bowl, three 30-second spots during the game and two in the pre-game broadcast.

“We feel that the best way for us to reach everybody, and to position AOL as related to what they’re doing that day, is to somehow have a role in those common events,” Short said.

“AOL has gotten bruised a bit, so maybe it’s time for them to come out and be really strong,” said Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein. (Jupiter Research and IAR are both owned by Jupitermedia.) “SuperBowl advertising is a way to show how big you are, and sometimes that’s a really important thing.” Commercials during the game are notoriously pricey, Stein said, and it’s difficult to tell whether the exposure pays off.

With the launch of its AOL 9.0 Optimized this year, the ISP has made a number of big pushes to hold onto current subscribers — which is critical to attracting the advertisers it hopes will drive a reversal of its fortunes. Besides the re-vamped main version of its service, AOL has launched versions for kids and Hispanics, and is working on a version aimed at teens. The company believes tailoring user experiences for different niches will increase customer satisfaction. It will also provide more targeted advertising opportunities on the service — as long as AOL is successful in retaining and building its audience.

The commercials airing during the game will promote a new product launch, Short said, but he would not disclose the content or products in the ads. BBDO Worldwide, AOL’s traditional advertising agency for AOL 9.0 and other products, produced the pre-game spots, while Weiden & Kennedy handled the more high-profile in-game commercials. An AOL spokesperson said that Portland, Ore.-based Weiden & Kennedy has been retained to consult on branding. In November, AOL put its interactive creative and media accounts in review; interactive has been handled by atmosphereBBDO.

The Super Bowl sponsorship is a natural outgrowth of AOL’s existing relationship with the National Football League. Earlier this year, AOL and the NFL announced an expanded strategic alliance that provides a wide variety of NFL video and audio content through [email protected], available free for broadband subscribers. The ISP has similar deals with other major sports leagues.

AOL will milk the sponsorship — and its NFL connection — for all it’s worth. It’s also the official sponsor of the NFL Experience, a week-long interactive theme park in Houston with games, displays and entertainment activities. Immediately after the game, AOL will post its annual Super Bowl Commercial Showcase, offering its members streams of the big-budget, high-concept ads the football extravaganza famously attracts. The showcase will include exclusive behind-the-scenes Super Bowl content.

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