Football ads tiptoe around trademarks

  • Article by: ROBERT CHANNICK , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2012 - 9:34 PM

Marketers try to capitalize on the Super Bowl without saying, well, Super Bowl.

CHICAGO - With Super Bowl XLVI just days away, advertisers are in an all-out blitz, pitching everything from pizzas to TVs in conjunction with the biggest sporting event of the year.

The ads often feature "super" savings and football themes, but one thing is conspicuously absent from nearly all of them -- the name of the game itself.

Trademarked and tenaciously defended by the National Football League, only a handful of official sponsors are able to employ "Super Bowl" in their marketing efforts. Everyone else, from national electronics retailers to the corner bar, runs the risk of a lawsuit from the league if they use the actual name without permission.

"When we become aware of a potential violation, we will be very aggressive, and sending a cease-and-desist letter would be the first step," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

The NFL has 22 official marketing partners who pay upward of $100 million annually to be affiliated with the league. Sponsors include Pepsi, Verizon, Motorola and Castrol, which is the official motor oil of the NFL. While there is no specific sponsorship of the Super Bowl, NFL sponsors have the right to use the game's name and logo in their own marketing efforts, according to McCarthy.

The rest of the retail world must tightrope the sidelines to tap into Super Bowl sales, a phenomenon that has grown in lockstep with the game itself.

Last year, more than 111 million viewers watched the Super Bowl -- the largest television audience of all time, according to Nielsen. The average game-watcher will drop $63.87 on merchandise, clothing and snacks, with total consumer spending for this year's Super Bowl expected to reach a record $11 billion, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation.

Making a connection to the game, however tenuous, can be lucrative for advertisers, and a source of aggravation for the league. The NFL sends out 80 to 100 cease-and-desist letters each year to businesses promoting some Super Bowl special, usually based on a tip from a competitor who is "playing by the rules," according to McCarthy.

"They're trying to draft off the goodwill that we've built up over the past 46 years with the Super Bowl," McCarthy said. "Part of the reason we've been able to build up the Super Bowl is by protecting our intellectual property. We're very protective of where and to whom we extend our rights."

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