February 3, 2012 in Features

Super Bowl advertisers playing the long game

Steve Johnson Chicago Tribune
 

Here’s a new thought: Will the Super Bowl – the culmination of months of planning, research and spending – be kind of an anticlimax?

By the time the game airs Sunday on NBC, most everybody who really wants to will have seen the event’s most anticipated advertisement, Volkswagen’s follow-up to the peewee Darth Vader-starring, “Star Wars”-themed commercial that topped most ratings of the ads that aired during last year’s big game.

In the belief that the game is now just a point on the marketing continuum, VW planned to release the ad Wednesday morning, letting the world know just how dogs and “Star Wars” figure in its push this year for the new Volkswagen Beetle. Hint: Like more than 100 million Americans, folks at the “Star Wars” cantina apparently watch football, and the ads.

For a marketer, “the Super Bowl is really not a game on a Sunday afternoon anymore,” said Brian Thomas, general manager of brand marketing at Volkswagen of America. “The Super Bowl is almost a three-week PR and social media campaign, and you have to think of it that way.”

More and more advertisers do. Setting aside network promos and movie ads, roughly half of the spots slated to run Sunday evening – during the moments when the New England Patriots are not playing the New York Giants for the National Football League championship – were already available on the Web Wednesday to be shared, excerpted, covered, discussed and reviewed.

This is the highest proportion yet of early unveilings, experts said, meaning viewers who have sought out ads in advance could experience déjà vu during the game itself – or the opportunity to take an actual bathroom break.

Among the ads whose exact content is being held back until the game, many will have, at minimum, been “teased,” or previewed, often with productions nearly as elaborate as the ads themselves. Volkswagen, for example, struck advance gold with a 64-second Web spot with dogs barking “Star Wars” music, and Bridgestone produced an ad anticipating its actual ad.

“Not only are they recognizing the power of social media, but these ads cost so much that they’re trying to get the most bang for their buck,” said David Shoffner, public relations strategist for the Pavone advertising agency, which has tracked Super Bowl advertising closely through its spotbowl.com website. “These are spots that really live on for a year or more.”

Such widespread unveiling calls into question the traditional Super Bowl ecosystem, in which people gather at parties to watch the whole spectacle, from game to ads to, this year, Madonna at halftime; critics judge spots as they air; and ad ratings rendered by average audience members, such as those run by USA Today, YouTube and Facebook, get big buzz the next day as the popular verdict is made known.

“I kind of like to see them on the day,” said Mark Renshaw, chief innovation officer and a digital marketing expert for Leo Burnett Chicago, which does not have an ad in this year’s game. “I’m not sure I really agree with the releasing ahead.

“To me, if I was going to release something (ahead of time) to a community of fans, I wouldn’t be releasing a film. I’d release a setup to it. On the day you would connect the dots.”

But Volkswagen’s Thomas said, “To not release the spot, frankly, I think, is a little archaic.

“Maybe as recently as four, five years ago there was a lot of merit to holding your cards tightly to the vest. The reality is now there’s so much earned media opportunity. We had 13 million views of mini Vader before kickoff last year.”

To Tim Calkins, who teaches marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the “trade-off” of game-day surprise for extra attention and extra viewings by the audiences is, for the most part, worth it – a bargain driven largely by the new smoothness of Web and mobile video.

“There’s no question that advertisers are getting much more aggressive in advance of the Super Bowl,” said Calkins, who also shepherds the Kellogg School’s annual postgame assessment of ads’ effectiveness. “In most cases it makes a lot of sense. The problem with the Super Bowl is there are about 70 ads, plus there’s a football game going on, plus many people are at a party.

“So it is very hard to stand out during the game. If you can get ahead of the game, you have an opportunity to make a much bigger impression with people.”

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