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.
It's trademarked and tenaciously defended by the National Football League, and only a handful of official sponsors may employ "Super Bowl" in their marketing efforts. Everyone else runs the risk of a lawsuit from the league if they use the 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," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
The NFL has 22 official marketing partners who pay upward of $100 million annually to be affiliated with the league. Sponsors include Pepsi, Verizon and Motorola. There is no specific sponsorship of the Super Bowl, but NFL sponsors have the right to use the game's name and logo in their own marketing efforts, according to McCarthy.
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.
Advertisers have come up with many ways to skirt the Super Bowl trademark issue. Based in Indianapolis — the site of this year's game — electronics retailer hhgregg is running a multi-media campaign promoting its 2012 Super Sale XLVI, which is emblazoned on a football shield.
Papa John's might be the official pizza sponsor of the Super Bowl, but Pizza Hut expects to sell 2 million pizzas on Sunday with its "Big Deal for the Big Game," a promotion offering any pizza for $10.
To avoid conflict, many marketers refer to the Super Bowl simply as "The Big Game," a substitution so ubiquitous that the NFL even tried to trademark that phrase in 2006. The move was opposed by a long list of advertisers, but it ultimately was undone by a college football rivalry between the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University that has been known as the Big Game for more than a century. The league abandoned that trademark application in 2007.
"Their goal was so that nobody could even refer to it in any way possible in a commercial, without paying them for the right to do it," said David Silverman, a Washington, D.C. media attorney who pens an annual blog on the Super Bowl trademark issue.
Silverman said the NFL is "more aggressive than it needs to be" in protecting the Super Bowl trademark. But like a heavy-hitting linebacker patrolling his turf, intimidation plays a factor in resolving nearly every case in the league's favor.
"When you get a cease-and-desist letter from the NFL threatening suit, you're going to stop using the word 'Super Bowl' in your commercial, whether or not it would actually be permitted, if push came to shove, in a legal decision," Silverman said.