December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

A not-so super day for Web ads

A sock puppet singing the praises of Pets.com took home the trophy for best Super Bowl ad by an Internet retailer. But other Web businesses plunking down $2.2 million for 30-second spots didn’t even play in the same league, and that leaves analysts questioning whether the mass audience is the right place for tightly niched e-commerce.

“Consumers didn’t latch on to dot-coms that advertised during the Super Bowl,” says Robert Labatt, an analyst for the Gartner Group. “A lot of the ads looked like public service announcements.”

Labatt, who surveyed 75,000 households tuning in during the big game, says Internet advertisers weren’t clear in their messages. He chalks it up to inexperience. “If you look at the BMW or brewery ads, they were much more polished. But then, BMW and Budweiser are established brands.”

Pets.com may be on the way to estab-lishing its own. Its traffic spiked 220% on Super Bowl Sunday, according to PC Data Online, Reston, Va. More than 15% were first-time visitors

Pets.com’s second-quarter spot nabbed a 54% return on investment, the highest of all Web ads during the game, according to Active Research, a Burlingame, Calif., firm that tracks offline advertising. “It’s a warm ad, and people like the sock puppet,” says Active Media CEO Tom DuBois. “It ties well to their products.”

But DuBois can’t say the same for other Web companies determined to play the Super Bowl. “For brand new companies, you have to wonder if they’re better off advertising elsewhere.”

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