Case Study: GoDaddy’s Super Bowl Commercials

Bob Parsons sold his first successful company, Parsons Technology, in 1994, and in 1997 he used the proceeds to start a new company, Jomax Technologies. Unsatisfied with the Jomax name, Parsons and his staff came up with the more arresting moniker Go Daddy. As Parsons told Wall Street Transcripts, the name worked ‘‘because the domain name GoDaddy.com was available, but we also noticed that when people hear that name, two things happen. First, they smile. Second, they remember it.’’ After an unsuccessful attempt to establish the company as a source for website-building software, Parsons reinvented Go Daddy as a registrar of Internet domain names, buying unused website names and then reselling them to individuals and businesses in need of an online presence. Go Daddy also offered auxiliary services and products enabling customers to launch their sites after the domain-name purchase, including (as in the company’s early days) software for building sites. Domain-name registration, however, was a burgeoning industry as America became increasingly wired and more and more businesses found it essential to establish a Web presence. By 2004 Go Daddy had sold nearly seven million domain names and was the world’s leading registrar of domain names. Up to that point the company had done little marketing, relying primarily on word-of-mouth buzz and low prices; Go Daddy offered domain names for $8.95, compared with fees of $35 at the industry’s high end.

Godaddy Logo

In late 2004 Go Daddy enlisted New York agency the Ad Store for its first sustained offline advertising campaign. The company announced that the campaign would make its TV debut during the 2005 Super Bowl, a move that drew widespread criticism, partly because of the recent history of Super Bowl advertising undertaken by dot-com companies. Dot-com advertising on the Super Bowl had been prevalent in the late 1990s and in the first few years of the new century but had been nearly absent from the game since the bursting of the Internet bubble, leading many industry observers to connect such Super Bowl airtime purchases with the fiscal irresponsibility characteristic of failed dot-coms. Parsons argued that his company was different. As he told Brandweek, ‘‘Back in ‘99 . . . dot-coms raised money on ideas that weren’t viable. But we are the leader in our industry and actually do make money.’’

That Super Bowl, played on February 6, 2005, was the first since the infamous ‘‘wardrobe malfunction’’ that had resulted in pop singer Janet Jackson’s breast being exposed on the air during the previous year’s halftime show. Among the results of the public outcry following the incident was increased pressure on Super Bowl advertisers to avoid risky images and themes. Go Daddy chose to fly in the face of this pressure by running a sexually suggestive commercial that lampooned the prevailing climate of censorship. With a 30-second Super Bowl spot costing $2.4 million, Go Daddy’s decision to advertise twice during the game represented a considerable risk for such an unknown company. Additional production expenses approached $1 million. The spot featured a buxom woman undergoing Congressional questioning in order to gain approval to appear in a commercial for GoDaddy.com. As the woman pointed to the GoDaddy.com logo on the front of her tight tank top, one of the shirt’s straps broke, a wardrobe malfunction that was met with camera flashes and shocked exclamations as the woman continued to explain what GoDaddy.com was. The commercial aired as planned during the first quarter of the Super Bowl, but then, apparently because of the protests of a National Football League executive, Fox neglected to run the spot during the second on-air slot that Go Daddy had purchased. The spot was rated one of the Super Bowl’s most memorable, but it was the controversy surrounding the network’s refusal to air it a second time that proved to be Go Daddy’s true marketing coup. The numerous media stories about Fox’s censorship of a commercial about censorship gave Go Daddy nearly $12 million in free publicity. The company continued to run TV spots featuring the tank-top-clad woman, including a spot during Super Bowl XL that made reference to the previous year’s commercial.

Target Audience

Parsons told Brandweek that Go Daddy targeted ‘‘everyone who wants a Web presence.’’ Go Daddy’s domain-name prices were among the industry’s least expensive, and it offered a range of website-management services that comparably priced competitors did not; therefore, Parsons and his colleagues believed that the company would continue to grow rapidly as long as it could make a wider public aware of its brand. The Super Bowl, of course, offered one of the last giant television audiences in an age of fragmenting viewership, and it was annually the most watched television program in America by a wide margin. Super Bowl XXXIX was expected to reach 130 million U.S. viewers, though the actual number of viewers watching the game at any given time was estimated at closer to 90 million.

If Go Daddy could make a splash with an audience of this size, it could count on a much greater degree of brand awareness among the American population at large. Though that year’s restrictions on the content of Super Bowl commercials limited the degree to which advertisers could use provocative imagery and messages, Go Daddy and the Ad Store nevertheless charted an intentionally controversial course as a means of standing out from the field of high-profile advertisers. The Go Daddy commercial thus featured an attractive female model in sexually suggestive attire and in a context that directly parodied the political hysteria surrounding the previous year’s halftime incident.

Campaign Strategy

The official price for 30 seconds of Super Bowl XXXIX airtime was $2.4 million, and Go Daddy bought two such blocks of time, intending to run the same commercial twice, once in the first quarter of the game and once just before the two-minute warning at the game’s end. (Media-industry insiders contended, however, that publicized Super Bowl advertising rates were akin to sticker prices on automobiles and that advertisers ultimately did not pay the full amount.) Go Daddy’s expenses were not limited to the media-buying cost; the company invested close to $1 million in production of its Super Bowl commercial, an amount of money equivalent to the yearly marketing budget of comparably sized companies. Part of this expense was a result of unforeseen problems with Fox in the weeks leading up to the game. As Tim Arnold, managing partner at the Ad Store, recounted after the fact in Adweek, Fox approved storyboards of the Go Daddy commercial on December 3, 2004 (just over two months prior to the Super Bowl, which was played on February 6, 2005), only to withdraw that approval on December 22, after the commercial was already in preproduction. After Fox placed new restrictions on the commercial—including a demand that the words ‘‘wardrobe malfunction’’ be removed from the script—the Ad Store shot ‘‘16 and a half’’ versions of the spot to account for all possible objections the network might yet make. The network continued to reject proposed versions of the commercial until the week before the game, at which point Go Daddy finally received grudging permission to use the airtime for which it had already paid in excess of $4 million.

The commercial reproduced the look of the C-SPAN network (known for its live coverage of Congressional matters), with a banner at the bottom of the screen informing viewers that they were witnessing ‘‘Broadcast Censorship Hearings’’ in Salem, Massachusetts. A woman named Nikki Cappelli (played by Candice Michelle), wearing a tight-fitting tank top and jeans in an otherwise formally dressed crowd, explained to the Congressional committee that she wanted to be in a commercial. When asked what she was advertising, she stood and pointed to the chest of her tank top, on which the GoDaddy.com name was printed, and as she began to inform the panelists about the company’s identity, a strap on her top snapped, threatening to reveal her breasts and triggering a flurry of camera flashes and gasps from onlookers. Asked what she would do in the commercial, Cappelli stood and performed a dance with her arms in the air, again triggering shocked gasps and camera flashes. A Congressional panelist then said, ‘‘Surely by now you must realize that you’re upsetting the committee.’’ Cappelli earnestly replied, ‘‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset the committee,’’ as an elderly committee member was shown putting an oxygen mask to his face. A black screen featuring the message ‘‘See more coverage at GoDaddy.com’’ then appeared—a reference to an uncensored and more sexually suggestive version of the ‘‘hearings’’ that was available for viewing on the website—and the commercial closed with the voice of a female committee member saying, ‘‘May I suggest a turtleneck?’’ The commercial never made its second appearance on the Super Bowl. After airing it in its assigned firstquarter spot, Fox decided not to run it in the fourth quarter, reportedly because of complaints made by a high-level National Football League executive.

Competition

Among Go Daddy’s top competitors was Network Solutions, which was introduced as a technology consulting company in 1979, making it a veritable ancient in the online world. Network Solutions was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation in 1993 to create a single domain-name registration service for the Internet, which effectively gave the company a monopoly in the industry of domain-name registration until 1999, when the field was opened to competition. The Internet-security and telecommunications company VeriSign acquired Network Solutions at the height of the dot-com bubble in 2000, for $15 billion (the largest Internet merger in history at that point). The company’s 2003 sale to Pivotal Equity was a measure of the changes in the dot-com world in the interim: the purchase price this time was $100 million.

Register.com was another of Go Daddy’s rival domain-name registrars. The company was founded as a domain-name registrar in 1994, and it was one of the five original companies selected for entry into the newly opened market in 1999. Like Network Solutions, Register.com had Internet-bubble baggage. The company made its initial public offering on March 3, 2000, a week before the Nasdaq peaked, at a price of $24 per share; by the end of that first trading day, Register.com was priced at $57.25 per share. Register.com shares climbed to $116 before the dot-com bubble definitively burst. By 2005 the company’s shares were hovering between $5 and $6 and were considered by many analysts to be a good value for the money.

Campaign Outcome

During the Super Bowl traffic to GoDaddy.com spiked by 378 percent, and a survey conducted one and then two days after the Super Bowl found that the Go Daddy commercial was the most memorable of all spots that ran during the game. It was the story of Fox’s decision not to air the commercial a second time, however, that proved most useful to the company. The censorship of a commercial that itself poked fun at overzealous censorship proved irresistible to the media, especially in the context of the ongoing commentary about standards of broadcast decency. As word of this incident spread, Go Daddy became by far the most talked-about Super Bowl advertiser. The buzz surrounding the brand in the game’s aftermath—measured as ‘‘share of voice,’’ the percentage of times that Go Daddy was mentioned in stories about the Super Bowl that ran on national, cable, and the top 50 local TV networks—was calculated at 51.4 percent between February 7 and 11, 2005. Go Daddy received nearly $12 million in free publicity, and many of the TV stories about the incident replayed portions of the commercial. Bob Parsons said in a press release, ‘‘Go Daddy accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve with its first-ever Super Bowl ad—increased brand awareness. Today, millions of people now know about GoDaddy.com, which in turn has generated significant new business.’’ The magazine Business 2.0 declared the Go Daddy Super Bowl effort the ‘‘Smartest Ad Campaign’’ of 2005.

Though Go Daddy allowed its contract with the Ad Store to expire soon after the 2005 Super Bowl, moving its creative duties in-house, the company’s subsequent advertising conformed closely to the model established by the Super Bowl commercial. The actress who played Nikki Cappelli, Candice Michelle, continued to appear in Go Daddy spots that drew overt attention to her sexual appeal, and she became known as the ‘‘Go Daddy Girl.’’ In 2006 she appeared in a Go Daddy spot that ran during the NFL Playoffs, and Go Daddy again struggled to get a spot approved for the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl XL commercial, which rehashed material from the previous year’s spot, again ran in an extended form on the company website, as did alternate versions of other Go Daddy commercials. Website visitors could read a detailed history of Go Daddy’s attempt to gain approval for its 2006 Super Bowl entry and could also view numerous spots that had been denied, suggesting that the company’s battles against censorship had become increasingly self-conscious and premeditated. Go Daddy continued to grow rapidly.

Reference: Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns. Thomas Riggs

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