Between them, Mark Gross and Barry Burdiak have made a remarkable 52 appearances in over 21 Super Bowls. Yet while most of the game's global audience has never seen either man, they're probably familiar with their work. The duo are the "Mad Men" behind some of the Super Bowl's most memorable ads. Gross, 40, is the creative force behind Bud Lite's 2006 spot "Secret Fridge" (the owner of a beer-packed refrigerator attaches it to a revolving wall that comes to a spot in the next-door apartment, where dudes empty the magic fridge of the brews). Then there's Burdiak's Bud Lite ad about an underdog Clydesdale horse who finally makes the hitch team in Rocky-esque fashion after a year of rigorous training under the supervision of a Dalmatian.
Smart and witty ads like those created by Gross and Burdiak aren't disappearing. But this year's ad game is dramatically different than in years past, according to the two executives, both of whom work with the DDB agency in Chicago. Super Bowl 43 will be played against a backdrop that's hardly fun and games—a deepening recession, plummeting real-estate values, massive job losses and home foreclosures. Sitting on the sideline this year are such Super Bowl mainstays as FedEx and General Motors; they've opted to save the record $2.4 million to $3 million per 30-second spot being charged by NBC. In one significant respect, however, little is changing. While NBC says it had a tough time selling the last 10 to 15 percent of its inventory, Sunday's game may set a record—with $200 million in ad revenue expected, by some estimates.
Burdiak and Gross, whose clients include A-B InBev (formerly Anheuser Busch), are sticking with a perennial and winning game plan: provide entertaining, escapist humor. That seems to be the general trend this year. Says Burdiak: "We go for big-room laughter."
Look for some big names, too. Conan O'Brien is showcased in one of the ads being considered by InBev (the company won't make its final decisions until the last minute). The comic and late-night talk show host plays himself in the spot; he's being persuaded by his agent to star in an ad that he is led to believe will only air in Sweden. Other contenders feature the famed Clydesdales. Another strong possibility is an ad created in consideration of the times: an office meeting goes awry when someone suggests doing away with Bud Light as a cost-cutting measure. In these tough economic times, says Burdiak, sometimes humor is the best medicine. It may be a great sales tactic, as well.