The Biggest Waste of Money in Super Bowl History

On this day in economic and financial history...

The Super Bowl is more than just a championship sporting event. It's also a national holiday of sorts, and for dozens of companies, it's the perfect annual showcase for their brand. The Super Bowl is the one time of the year when millions of viewers actually pay attention to the commercials. On Jan. 30, 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble, those millions who tuned into Super Bowl XXXIV were treated to one of the most start-up-saturated ad blitzes ever seen.

During breaks in the action, a cavalcade of dot-com darlings paid $1.1 million per 30-second ad spot to sell a nation of newly minted market millionaires (and many more who had missed out) on all manner of dubious enterprises. At the time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) was mere days removed from its mid-January peak, but everyone was paying attention to the bubblicious Nasdaq, which had broken 4,000 points at the end of 1999 and was rapidly advancing on its all-time high. Only one of the 19 dot-com start-ups that bought ad time for Super Bowl XXXIV has returned to the big game in later years: E*Trade (NASDAQ: ETFC  ) , which had already been a public company for three and a half years. A 700% gain between IPO day and Super Bowl XXXIV might help to explain why E*Trade was so carefree about running a commercial with a dancing monkey, ending with the tag line, "Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks." Many of the other companies are now defunct, acquired, or otherwise reorganized.

Pets.com ran its infamous sock puppet ad to pitch online pet supplies. It folded within the year. So, too, did Epidemic.com and LifeMinders.com, both of which had something to do with email. LifeMinders' ad declared itself "the worst ad on the Super Bowl," which is probably just as pointless as a dancing monkey bragging about throwing $2 million in the toilet. Computer.com  raised $7 million in venture capital and spent half of it on Super Bowl ads to tell the technology-illiterate to go to Computer.com to figure out how to use a mouse or something. The site's founders starred in the ad but wound up selling their business to Office Depot (NYSE: ODP  ) later that year. The domain is currently up for sale. Office Depot must not see a lot of value in maintaining a website for people who don't know how to use the Internet.

What about the Super Bowl's dot-com survivors? WebMD is still around. It went public in 2005, avoiding the worst of the dot-com bust. Business software provider MicroStrategy, which was founded in 1989, reached an adjusted peak share price of $3,130 on March 10, 2000 -- the same day the Nasdaq peaked. A decade after Super Bowl XXXIV, it was worth 97% less. Monster Worldwide (NYSE: MWW  ) , which gobbled up fellow advertiser and job-site company HotJobs.com a decade later (nearly to the day), also peaked on March 10 and had lost 82% of its value by the time of its acquisition. E*Trade peaked at the end of March 2000 and fell by 95% over the decade following the dot-com Super Bowl.

In the decade that followed the dot-com Super Bowl, the market suffered through two steep bear markets, but the more conservative Dow weathered them far better. Its closing price in early 2010 was only 8% lower than its value on Jan. 30, 2000, in spite of its weakened post-crisis state at the time. The Nasdaq, however, remained 46% below its Super Bowl closing price.

The first PC virus
Jan. 30 is notable for computing follies in more than one way. On Jan. 30, 1982, high-school student Richard Skrenta wrote the code for the first computer virus of the PC era, a boot program for Apple IIs that he called "Elk Cloner." The virus was only annoying and not malicious, as all it did was display a cheeky poem every 50th time the Apple II was loaded up. However, it contained the first example of self-replicating code, which could transfer the virus' 400 lines of programming from floppy disc to memory, and then back into an uninfected floppy whenever one was loaded to the machine.

Viruses have become a major problem following the advent of the Internet. Globally, their attacks are estimated to cost $1.5 trillion in lost productivity each year. This enormous cost might be minimized if only today's viruses were limited to the occasional poem.

Skrenta went on to become a successful programmer and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, doing stints at early PC industry leader Commodore and Sun Microsystems before founding the Open Directory Project and Topix. His most recent project is blekko, a search engine that purports to offer superior results to those provided by Google.

The dot-com era is long gone, but investors have a great selection of better-run tech companies to choose from today. Which of these companies is best-positioned in the latest explosive trend? To help you discover a hidden gem in the mobile ecosystem, The Motley Fool has just released a free report called "The Next Trillion-Dollar Revolution" that offers you the inside scoop. You'll learn why this seismic shift will dwarf any other technology revolution seen before it, but we also provide you with the name of the company at the forefront. Hundreds of thousands have requested access to our previous reports, and you can access this new report today by clicking here -- it's free.


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