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The Dot-Com Super Bowl

Charlie Schroeder

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Super-Sized Super Bowl Commercial
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Computer.com's Super Bowl Ad
(Mike Ford and Mike Zapolin)
Computer.com Super Bowl Pre-Game Ad
(Mike Ford and Mike Zapolin)

I need to put things in perspective: in January of 2000, er, Y2K, things were dot-com crazy.

Computer.com Super Bowl Pre-Game Ad
(Mike Ford and Mike Zapolin)

"There was an Internet world that was basically a rock concert for dot coms," says Mike Ford. "People were requesting autographs on business cards and crazy things like that."

He's one of the guys that started Computer.com, a help site for, shall we say, people who couldn't tell the difference between a mouse and a modem. In 1999, he and his partner Mike Zapolin raised $7 million to start the company. Then they spent half of it. On Super Bowl ads.

"We had just taken the money, the venture capital money in November and had six weeks to produce an advertising campaign where Doritos and Mountain Dew had been working on it for 11 months. We had six weeks," Ford says.

"We went to the ad agency," says Ford's partner Mike "Zappy" Zapolin, "and they gave us the pitch of the ten different commercials they thought would work and Ford and I just kind of looked at each other and said 'Where's the one we're in?'"

Mike and Mike and their advertising agency agreed on a campaign that combined elements of a Woody Allen movie and an ad that you'd expect to see from a local car dealer.

"The commercial starts off with the two of us holding up a sign saying 'Computer.com, 1 800 Computer,'" says Ford. "Then it cuts away to one of Mike's relatives, or someone Mike knows, we're not sure which Mike. "And them telling the story of Computer.com. At the end, it comes back to Mike and Mike, holding up a sign and asking people to come to the site or call the phone number."

That year I watched the Super Bowl with a bunch of my friends. None of us cared that much about the game, but when the commercials came on we all turned to the TV only to find it'd been taken over by dot-coms. Like Pets.com, LifeMinders.com, HotJobs.com, Kforce.com, OurBeginning.com, LastMinuteTravel.com, Epidemic.com, Netpliance.com, webMD.com, Britannica.com, onMoney.com, Monster.com. It got so bad at one point that we were convinced a commercial would soon air for a company called dotcom.com.

Meanwhile Mike Ford and his 12-person staff monitored Computer.com's web traffic from their Boston headquarters. Zappy? The network gave him tickets on the 50-yard line and an invitation to watch his commercial from the Disney booth.

"I went up there and it was a very surreal moment, up in the Disney booth," says Zappy. "There was Michael Eisner and Joe Namath and John Travolta and a few advertisers that were there. And each time somebody's commercial went off everybody in the booth knew what was going on so they'd be patting everybody on the back."

Because Mike and Mike bought their ad so late it got the worst possible slot, toward the end of the game at the two-minute warning, when most people had tuned out. But this year was different. The game was a real nail biter. At the two-minute warning, St. Louis led by only a touchdown. As 140 million people sat on the edge of their seats, ABC went to commercial.

"And I remember the president, it was Iger at the time of Disney," Zappy says. "He looked at me and he said 'I don't know if you have a horseshoe up your ass, but that was the highest rated commercial of all time.'"

Things could not have been better for Mike and Mike. But then the bubble burst.

"I didn't know the bubble was going to burst quite as fast as it burst," says Zappy. "But I'll never forget I was standing with somebody on the balcony in Miami Beach and talking about what was going on and they were dentists and they were saying, 'Oh yeah, I'm putting together a hedge fund,' and I literally in that moment thought to myself, 'My God if my dentist is talking about starting a dot-com anything then this is just spiraling way too fast.'"

Ten months after launching their company with a Super Bowl ad, Mike and Mike sold Computer.com to Office Depot.

"I've been through it back and forth in my mind," Ford says, "could we have done this differently and that differently, but the bottom line was we executed appropriately for that moment in time."

After Computer.com Mike Ford worked in sales and helped launch a couple companies. But it wasn't quite the same. Meanwhile Zappy continues to buy generic URL names, that is, when he isn't lecturing on Jewish Mysticism or Kabala.

"You know, Kabalistically there are ways the universe works," Zappy says "and if you can plug into those you're going to help yourself, advance yourself and at the same time have a lot less chaos."

He even has a website for it: Kabala.com. Which will not be airing a commercial during Super Bowl XLII.

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