The Super Bowl and technology start-ups: commercials from the peak of the tech bubble
The line-up of tech and web companies from the 1999 and 2000 Super Bowl broadcasts are filled with familiar names like Apple, but also those that were soon to flame out
The Super Bowl is this weekend – you know that, right? Frankly I’m not that interested as I understand Joe Montana is not playing.
But in my household, the game was one of the few times all year when the whole family would gather around the television – me to watch the game, everyone else to watch the commercials.
For most people, the best commercials have always come from the usual places, Budweiser, Doritos, and others. But for a brief two year period, the commercials directly reflected the first great tech bubble.
In the early nineties, I lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area and saw first hand the rise of the Internet economy. It was a golden age of tech publishing. Macworld and PCWorld were around, of course, but those in the know read The Industry Standard, Wired, Red Herring, and Business 2.0. Launched in 1998, The Industry Standard was, by its second year, the most successful magazine in the world (and by 2001 it was shuttered).
The year The Industry Standard became a giant was the year web and tech companies began a two-year run of dominating commercials during the Super Bowl.
The Eighties was the rise of the PC, and the ad that still sets the standard for tech commercials was, of course, Apple’s 1984, the commercial that still tops many lists of greatest commercials of all time so it would be malpractice to at least not start this review with the classic Super Bowl ad:
In 1999, the Super Bowl was between Denver and Atlanta, and it would result in the second and last Super Bowl win for John Elway. The game was originally scheduled to be played at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, but due to the earthquake during the World Series in the fall of 1989, the game was moved to Miami when NFL owners feared the stadium renovations might not be read in time.
It was in 1999 that TV audiences first became aware that something was going on out west in the tech world. And it started, a bit ironically with Apple again. Their frequently forgotten Mac ad spoofed the fact that there were worries that when the year ended, and we hit the year 2000, Windows based PCs would not be able to deal with the new millennium. Steve Jobs had returned to Apple in 1997, but he didnt stop what may have been Apple’s worst ad:
By far the best ad of 1999 came from Monster.com. I still love this ad. It was meant to put Monster on the map and it did just that. Monster.com CEO Jeff Taylor spent $4 million for three 30-second TV ads for the 1999 game, an unheard of gamble up until that time.
The company, though, knew what it was doing, and web traffic soared after the ad campaign, and it was prepared to handle the traffic growth.
“One thing I’ve learned in the past year doing all this work on the World Wide Web is that you can never really over-prepare for something like this,” Director of Development Jonathan Lynch told CNN in 2000. “We figured out what we would need and then we doubled it.”
Monster had competition online, of course. I used to love Headhunter.com because people posted their resumes online for all to see, knowing that because so few people were actively surfing the web, they would only be seen by those as tech savvy as yourself. That didn’t last, of course, and the site was eventually bought out by CareerBuilder.
HotJobs.com took the ultimate tech bubble gamble. In 1999 its revenues were around $2.5 million. But the company spent $1.6 million for the Super Bowl:
One ad from 1999 that I could not track down came from Buy.com, another of the new web companies just becoming known.
The year 2000, three months before the tech bubble burst, was the peak year for tech commercials. The 2000 Super Bowl, which pitted the St. Louis Rams against Tennessee Titans, is considered by many one of the best games in the series.
The previous year may have been the height of the tech bubble, but I also remember the year as the height of B2B magazine publishing in the US. We never soared so high, and magazine properties never were valued so high. Just as in the tech bubble, the reason for B2B’s high valuation was the same: speculation from private equity companies. I would argue that while tech has certainly recovered, B2B never has. Many of the leading companies in the late nineties are no longer even in business.
In 2000 HotJobs was back, and this time there was some financial justification for spending the money on the Super Bowl as its revenue would climb to $100 million that year. Two years later Yahoo bought the company for $436 million:
There now comes a long list of web-based companies that also advertised during the Super Bowl, some you might remember, some are forgotten.
Pets.com is one of the most famous start-ups of the era, launched in the late summer of 1998 and then shuttered in November of 2000. $300 million of venture capital was invested in the company – one of its early investors was even Amazon:
LifeMinders.com’s commercial is known as the worst commercial on the Super Bowl. Actually, that is exactly how it opens. The start-up was an online direct marketer which specialized in sending e-mail ‘reminders’ to consumers. The company was said to be going public, but the stock bubble burst and within a year or so the company was sold for peanuts.
OurBeginning.com was a wedding planning website, also now long gone:
Epidemic was possibly the ultimate tech bubble company. It only got one round of funding, bought a Super Bowl ad, and then… who knows?:
e-stamp.com was another company that didn’t last long, with Stamps.com buying the company’s name in 2001:
Netpliance sold inexpensive appliances for web surfing and managed to survive a bit longer than some of the others here, they closed down in 2002. I found this commercial fascinating, its premise is to sell you a device that makes accessing the Internet easy. That sounds crazy today, everything accesses the Internet today. But in January 2000 accessing the Internet still meant dial up modems. Also, I love their idea of a “webhead”:
OnMoney.com, a personal-finance website, got a big write up for their $2 million investment in the Super Bowl in 2000. The company was a unit of a company that is still around: Ameritrade and started the year saying they would spend $30 million in marketing that year. No wonder the trade magazines that covered the Internet were so filled with ads that year:
Finally, and ad from a brand that is still around: WebMD. This company can trace its roots back before these other start-ups began, to 1995. And that may be the lesson here as most of the tech start-ups that VCs backed in 1998-2000 did not last, but quite a number of firms that were early, had time to quietly grow, secure second and third rounds of funding, and so were in far better shape to survive the popping of the bubble in March of 2000: