Do Early Peeks at Super Bowl Ads Pay Off?

Super Bowl XLVNot too long ago, companies buying ad time during the Super Bowl -- TV's most expensive commercial venue -- sought to keep their game-day commercials secret until air time. The theory was to wow TV audiences with the element of surprise: a funny punch line, a new spokesperson or a catchy song delivered fresh. The goal was to guarantee that the ads would be the subject of office break-room conversation the next day.

But an increasing number of Super Bowl advertisers are now using a strategy that was once anathema: posting their game-day commercials online, well in advance of the game. Their goal: to get consumers talking about their ads not only after the Super Bowl, but sometimes months before kick-off.

That strategy, however, also begs the question of whether consumers actually watch those ads during the game, or do the commercials become just another opportunity to get a fresh beer from the fridge.

High-Stakes Game, High-Stakes Ads

At risk is a tidy sum. Aside from any production costs for a top-quality ad, a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl is fetching a record $3 million this year, according to a recent report from Kantar Media. For many companies, a Super Bowl commercial will represent their biggest single advertising expense for the year. And according to Kantar, one-third of the advertisers in last year's Super Bowl devoted more than 10% of their full-year media budgets to the game.

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"Over time, the stakes have escalated," says Jon Swallen, Kantar's senior vice president of research. "One way advertisers try to monetize that is with these pre-game, pre-release ads, trying to raise buzz and awareness. It helps to try to cut through the clutter."

And Swallen says Super Bowl ad time is more cluttered than ever. Last year, for instance, the game contained a record 47 minutes and 50 seconds of network ads. In comparison, the 2001 Super Bowl contained just over 40 minutes of commercials.

To be sure, many of the commercials in this year's Super Bowl -- to air on Fox on Feb. 6 -- will be kept secret until they hit the airwaves. But increasingly, the name of the marketing game is to tease viewers ahead of game day -- with clips or even the entire commercial. While some potential Super Bowl ads are already online, such as those from Pepsi MAX and Doritos, other marketers are still deciding whether to post their commercials early.

Go Daddy, for one, says it's likely to pre-release one of its two Super Bowl ads before the game, while a second commercial -- announcing a new celebrity spokesperson -- will be kept under wraps. The domain-name registrar began pre-releasing its Super Bowl ads in 2006 and was one of the few companies at the time that did so without an embargo, notes Marianne Curran, Go Daddy executive vice president of media and communications. "Some people may ask, 'Does it wreck the surprise?' We think it does just the opposite," she says. "It whets viewers' appetites."

Attracting Eyeballs

The viewer data, however, isn't always so clear-cut. Go Daddy's "News" spot last year ranked 12th among Super Bowl viewers, attracting 112.1 million pairs of eyeballs. But according to data from Nielsen, the company's second ad, "Spa," came in at No. 62 with just over 100 million viewers.

And pre-releasing an ad may not necessarily drum up consumer enthusiasm. Last year, the top-rated ad by USA Today's Ad Meter, a focus group that ranks its members' favorite ads, was the Snickers spot featuring Betty White -- an ad that wasn't pre-released. (Snickers says it will again keep its Super Bowl ad secret until the game.) While that ad succeeded by one measure, it was one of the least-watched ads during the game -- drawing 92.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Some marketers argue that game-day ratings for a specific commercial may be beside the point.

"The biggest thing for us, at least at Pepsico, is about engaging our fans for the prior eight months," says Rudy Wilson, vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay, a unit of Pepsico (PEP). Wilson pioneered the company's five-year-old "Crash the Super Bowl" program, which began soliciting consumer-created ads for the upcoming Super Bowl last fall. Of the 10 finalist videos posted on the site, six will air during this year's game.

Wilson acknowledges that pre-releasing ads may not give them any edge when it comes to their broadcast performance. But the benefit of engaging consumers months in advance makes the contest worth it. "It allows for our success not to be dictated by 30 seconds," he says.

Pre-Bowl Ad Buzz

The weeks leading up the game are "a unique period in time when audiences around the world are focused on your brand," says Audi chief marketing officer Scott Keogh, via email. "The lead-up to the Super Bowl can be just as important as game day."

Audi's 2010 Super Bowl spot, "Green Police," was teased with a number of pre-game ads, and according to Neilsen the commercial was ranked as the game's second most-watched, drawing 115.6 million viewers.. The top-watched ad last year was a Doritos spot called "Snack Attack Samurai," one of the entries in the "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, with 116.2 million viewers.

This year, Audi debuted what it calls a "prelude" to its Super Bowl spot: a minute-long ad based on the children's book Goodnight Moon. Both the Goodnight ad and the Super Bowl spot feature Audi's A8 sedan.

By pre-releasing Super Bowl ads, marketers are also able to bring in consumers via social-networking such as Facebook or Twitter. Audi's social-media campaign last year helped generate 3.1 million Facebook impressions and 3.1 million YouTube views, according to Keogh. And this year, Audi plans to host sponsored messages on Twitter leading up to the game -- and to "take over" YouTube's home page on Super Bowl Sunday, Keogh writes.

Risks and Advantages

More consumers are seeking out Super Bowl ads before the game, says Lucy Farey-Jones, partner and head of strategy at the San Francisco-based ad agency Venables Bell & Partners. Her firm's second annual Super Bowl survey found that 14% of consumers plan to look for Super Bowl commercials a week before the game. And younger viewers -- including 20% of young adults -- were more likely to watch the ads in advance.

"A lot of marketers are just doing a tease or allowing the audience to vote," she says. "It used to be that people kept it all wrapped up, and there's still some of that." Both approaches have their advantages, she notes, although there's the risk that by pre-releasing an Super Bowl spot, a company may "peak too early."

Referring to Apple's (AAPL) ground-breaking 1984 Super Bowl ad for the Macintosh, Farey-Jones asks, "I wonder if '1984' was leaked beforehand if it still would have had the same impact that it did?"

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