NEW YORK (Reuters) - When it came to advertising in Super Bowl XLIII, it seemed a spoonful of sugar helped the messages go down.
TV commercials that played best during NBC's broadcast of the National Football League championship game -- including ones from PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch InBev and E*Trade Financial Corp -- relied on an upbeat mix of laughs, sentimentality and special effects to push products to an audience fretting over their paychecks amid a deepening recession.
Among the commercials that won the highest praise from advertising experts on Sunday: A spot for Pedigree pet foods that featured rhinos, boars, ostriches and their hard-luck owners; and a Pepsi commercial set to Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" that centered around classic clips of the singer-songwriter and new shots of hip hop musician will.i.am.
Ads that received the biggest laughs, according to experts, included a Bud Light spot with late night talk show host Conan O'Brien and a commercial for Hulu, the video site owned by NBC and News Corp, starring Alec Baldwin.
Always the biggest advertising event of the year, the Super Bowl broadcast took on added importance this time for companies willing to shell out up to $3 million for a 30-second spot.
Advertising budgets are under pressure, sales across industries are slowing and consumers facing job cuts are in little mood to spend money on anything other than necessities.
Ad rates for the Super Bowl are always eye-popping, far above what is paid for any other TV event, partly because it draws around 95 million U.S. viewers.
Ads during the Academy Awards, another major advertising event which pulled about 32 million U.S. viewers last year, run about $1.8 million for a 30-second spot.
"It's hard not to watch these ads and not think 'Is every second worth $100,000?'" said Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer of Element 79, a unit of Omnicom Group "But that misses the point. The point is we are all watching at the same time, and that doesn't happen in today's media world."
Although commercial sales slowed in recent weeks, NBC, majority owned by General Electric Co., nevertheless sold out all the spots for a record $206 million.
As some perennial advertisers in the Super Bowl -- like General Motors and Fedex -- passed on the event this year, others jumped in with their first-ever Super Bowl spots, such as Cash4Gold, a company that buys used jewelry.
The Cash4Gold advertisement, relying on comedy, starred the odd couple of Ed McMahon and MC Hammer, a rapper popular in the 1980s, trying to outsell one another.
Sweet, sentimental advertisements had a larger presence than usual in the game. Anheuser-Busch InBev ran several sugary spots with its Clydesdale horses, including one in which a Clydesdale follows a love interest across the country.
Still, others played directly to the ugly economy: An H&R Block advertisement featured the grim reaper; a Bud Light ad had executives brainstorming about cost cutting; the popular E*Trade talking baby and a pal chatted about the "brutal" economy; and Denny's Corp, the restaurant chain, ran a commercial that promoted a free breakfast.
Other marketers went on the attack. The most noteworthy of these may have been Teleflora, a company that delivers flowers in vases, that showed flowers in a box spewing putdowns to the recipient.
"It was a good year for Super Bowl advertising," said Professor Tim Calkins of the Kellogg School of Management, who oversees a Super Bowl advertising review.
"The economy is making companies make better advertisements -- you saw that."