Under Armour's ad takes a few hits

Under Armour's debut Super Bowl commercial may not have won many popularity contests, but that doesn't mean it didn't succeed in reaching its target audience, the company and marketing experts said yesterday.

The Baltimore sports apparel company stuck to its traditional story line for the multimillion-dollar 60-second ad that launched a new cross trainer. It featured muscular athletes performing at their rawest. There were no gimmicks or cute story lines.


The commercial, broadcast in the first quarter of the most-watched Super Bowl ever with 97.5 million viewers, got smashed in some surveys. Some critics dismissed it as intimidating and fascist. On some polls it didn't rank at all.

The spot was voted the third lowest on USA Today's 20th annual Ad Meter results. The Super Bowl Advertising Review panel at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University ranked it in the middle of the pack. It didn't appear at all in a survey by HCD Research that rated the top 20 commercials. And it didn't make the top 10 on Adbowl, a Web site where viewers vote on their favorite commercials.


"It got lost in the crowd," said Glenn Kessler, president and CEO of HCD Research, who said his survey gave the most value to the emotional response the commercials raised in viewers. "It didn't resonate."

But Under Armour said it chose marketing strategy over angling for the entertainment quotient that wins a place on the viewer surveys.

"We knew going in with our hard creative style that we weren't going to fit in the top five for Ad Meter," said Steve Battista, Under Armour vice president of marketing.

"We don't poke fun at our brand. We don't embarrass our athletes. While it's good for other brands to include cartoon characters and talking animals because that's what scores high on Ad Meter, that's not what we do."

He said that Under Armour's earlier TV spots featuring sweaty football players on the field screaming "Protect This House" received similar criticism for being too hard-edged. "Protect This House" has since become an iconic saying in locker rooms.

Some marketing experts said the company was smart to stick to the tried and true to target its key demographic - 10-to-25-year-old athletes.

"The temptation in the Super Bowl is to do something a little outrageous, to do something to get noticed," said Howe Perry, who heads up sports and entertainment marketing at TBC, a Baltimore advertising firm.

"I think they resisted that temptation ... and instead were consistent with who they are and what they are about as a brand."


The commercial has a tough-guy feel with athletes like Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis pulling on a chain and San Francisco 49ers' tight end Vernon Davis pulling a tire attached to a chain tied around his waist. It ends with former NFL player Eric "Big E" Ogbugu standing over a crowd of Under Armour-clad athletes.

"The game has changed," Ogbugu screams manically. "It all starts today. You are the new prototypes. We are Under Armour. The future is ours."

Some critics said the commercial was reminiscent of the 1984 Super Bowl commercial that introduced Apple's Macintosh computer. Opinions differed on whether it was a good play on the Apple ad, which has become a legendary Super Bowl spot.

Bob Garfield, a media critic for Advertising Age magazine, described the ad as "Madden meets the Matrix." He said it was "a bit jumbled" and "a lot militant," but said it served its purpose.

"I think it will reach its core crowd - the athlete and the person who thinks of himself as an athlete," Garfield said. "Or just someone in general who thinks body preening is a way to win respect."

Garfield added that: "There is a little bit of fascist imagery, but it could also be taken as revolutionary fascist."


Kellogg's review panel concluded that the commercial did its job in defining the brand, but said some parts, particularly the ending with Ogbugu, may have been too much for some. It gave it a "C."

"Some thought it was a bit too serious for them," said Derek Rucker, an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg and one of the panel leaders. "It was a bit intimidating and over the top."

Participants in Adbowl's survey ranked Under Armour's spot 2.12 on a five-point scale, below a commercial for Taco Bell.

"They've done a great job of building the brand, but this just wasn't a breakthrough ad," said Steve McKee, president of the Albuquerque, N.M., advertising agency that runs Adbowl. "I think it's going to be one large not-talked-about spot."

No. 1 on both Ad Meter and Adbowl was Budweiser's commercial featuring a Dalmatian training a Clydesdale on a Rocky theme. A Coca-Cola ad with dueling parade balloons and a Tide commercial featuring a job applicant's talking stain also were well received.

Battista said internal reaction to its advertisement showed that it worked. Traffic to its Web site Sunday after the commercial ran was 50 times the peak holiday average, Battista said. People have already put in pre-orders for the shoes, which go on sale in May.


"We'll take a hit on one ad-rating scale from people far outside our core base to deliver the first look at our shoe to the biggest audience in Super Bowl history," Battista said.

Under Armour has staked a lot on the cross trainer - which it considers a launch into general athletic footwear. It's sinking so much money into the marketing campaign that its stock plummeted nearly 35 percent last month when it said the bulk of this year's earnings would be pushed into the second half.

The shares have since recovered much of that ground, but yesterday, the first trading day since the Super Bowl commercial ran, they dropped $2.49, or 5.8 percent, to close at $40.29.

Analysts said it was hard to tell if the fall was because of disappointment with the commercial or the market's general retreat.

Suzanne Smith, an analyst with ThinkEquity Partners, said she asked 10 people who fit Under Armour's core demographic to watch the ad. She found that they all liked it, although half said it didn't get them excited about the shoe.

The true test of the commercial's effectiveness could be months away.


"I didn't think it was an outstanding ad, but I think the proof of the pudding will be how much it causes sales to react," said Roland T. Rust, chair of the department of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.