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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sidestepping the usual slapstick comedy and animal tricks, a number of advertisers tried to score during Sunday's Super Bowl with commercials that tapped into men's ambivalence with their everyday lives.
In the battle among advertisers, Unilever's Dove, Chrysler LLC's Dodge and Flo TV created early buzz with spots that clearly targeted men feeling overwhelmed by responsibility and commitment.
"All three spots delved into a similar theme -- about how men are feeling and their relationship with their role in life," said Professor Tim Calkins of the Kellogg School of Management, who oversees a Super Bowl advertising review.
Another of the most buzzed about spots came from conservative Christian group called Focus on the Family, which created a stir even before the game when it announced plans to run an advertisement.
Some U.S. women's groups urged CBS not to air the ad, which starred college football star Tim Tebow, saying it has a strident anti-abortion rights message.
In the end, experts said, the spot itself was hardly controversial, using the sort of knock-down, physical comedy that is a staple of the Super Bowl.
"The spot ended up being very gentle, subtle," said Calkins.
Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova School of Business, said the spot would be "the most talked about ad of many years."
That would be a major victory for any marketer. With a national audience that could reach an estimated one-third of 300 million Americans, the National Football League's championship game is the biggest day of the year for advertisers.
Sometimes known as the Ad Bowl or Buzz Bowl, prices for 30 seconds of commercial time during CBS's broadcast topped out at more than $3 million. Most deals were done in the $2.5 million to $2.75 million range, ad executives said.
Those rates are far above what other TV events command, partly because the game draws around 95 million U.S. viewers, most of whom watch the game live, a rarity in the age of digital video recorders.
In Sunday's game, in which the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts, several newcomers made an appearance in advertisements.
Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc used its first ever Super Bowl commercial to trumpet Dr. Pepper Cherry in a spot featuring glam rock group Kiss; Sprint Nextel Corp's Boost Mobile enlisted some of the players from the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team, including Jim McMahon and Mike Singletary.
Catching many by surprise, Google Inc. ran a commercial during the game, an unusual marketing decision for a company that typically avoids mass market commercials. The spot, well-received by experts, told the story of a transAtlantic romance though search queries and results.
After 12 years away from the game, another technology powerhouse, Intel, returned for Super Bowl XLIV with a 30-second spot it called "Lunchroom." In the commercial, a robot's feelings are shattered when an Intel engineer declares that a new microprocessor is the "most amazing" invention the company has ever come up with.
Even without the presence of General Motors, which skipped the big game for the second year in a row, car-makers showed up frequently during commercial breaks, including a spot that declared that Dodge Charger as "man's last stand" against a life that dictated he walk the dog, sit through dull meetings and watch the wimpy TV shows his girlfriend picks.
Among foreign car-makers, Hyundai Motor Co., Honda Motor Co and Volkswagen all bought time.
In a 60-second Audi spot, set to a tune by the 1970s pop band Cheap Trick, the "green police" come down hard on anyone using plastic bags, incandescent light bulbs, batteries or Styrofoam cups -- but let a man driving Audi's A3 TDI clean diesel car breeze through a roadside "eco check."
"All of our research tells us this is an environment where people are looking for entertainment and they are looking for humor," said Scott Keogh, Chief Marketing Officer for Audi of America, a unit of Volkswagen. "It was important not to come off too preachy."
Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, promoting Budweiser and Bud Light, once again purchased the most commercial time in the game, spending millions to buy 5 minutes.
Experts gave its efforts mixed reviews. "The lighthearted approaches that resonate with their target audience that use a lowest common denominator are getting a little stale," said Taylor. "I don't think this was their best effort."
Reporting by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Bill Tarrant