No surprises here: In Anheuser-Busch's 2014 Super Bowl commercial, a dog will fall in love with a Budweiser horse. The ad will run in the fourth quarter of the game.

Super Bowl ads: Why advertisers can't pass up the pregame show

Super Bowl ads, or trailers designed to tease them, are running more and more in the weeks-long advertising pregame show, a way for companies to advertise they will be advertising during the Big Game.

Spoiler: In one Super Bowl ad airing Feb. 2, John Stamos will eat some Greek yogurt; in another, Steven Colbert will hold a bowl of pistachios; and, in another, Arnold Schwarzenegger will consider playing a game of ping pong.

These are three of the dozens of Super Bowl XLVIII commercials that advertisers have decided to spoil – on purpose – for audiences with preview videos, passing on the value of surprising viewers on game day for the anticipated payoffs of playing into the social media buzz that precedes the Big Game.

Once, Super Bowl commercials were well-kept secrets. Before the game, advertisers tapped into the raw, “who will win?” excitement of the Super Bowl, repackaging it into “what will Pepsi do?,” or “what will Bud Light say?” anticipation. All they had to do was do nothing at all.

Not so, these days. This year’s advertisers, following an emerging trend over the last three years, are not making anyone wait for their hotly-anticipated ads. The idea, analysts say, is to tap into the weeks-long pregame that has long preceded the Super Bowl: bets are wagered; parties are planned; and – advertisers hope – commercials, and the products touted in them, are talked about. The teasers are also a big nod to the fact that “prime-time” has ceded some of its caché to a digital world of shares, hashtags, and watch-anytime viewing. 

“What used to be a one-day event, with some postgame water-cooler chat, is now an eight- to 13-week experience,” Lucas Watson, vice president for brand solutions at Google, told The New York Times, adding that “major advertisers are trying to win the conversation” well before kick-off.

The promo model for Super Bowl ads – in effect, advertising that an advertiser will be advertising – dates back at least to 2011, when Volkswagen, partnering with ad agency Deutsch, released ahead of the game its commercial “The Force,” in which a pint-sized Darth Vader introduces audiences to a new car.

Raw numbers ahead of the 2014 game suggest that pre-“Super Bowl” commercials can get enormous attention before the ad ever airs – if it ever gets there at all. One pre-released 2014 Super Bowl ad from SodaStream, in which actress Scarlett Johansson takes a very long drink from a straw, was given the ax by Super Bowl-broadcaster Fox over the shot it takes at Pepsi and Coke. It will not air during the Super Bowl – but it has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube.

And data shows that those early viewings can help ensure that the ad will be among the most popular commercials of the football/advertising season. A report from Unruly, a marketing technology company, released on Thursday found that 60 percent of the most-shared Super Bowl commercials of all time were previewed before their official broadcast; it also said that seven of the 20 ads most shared after the 2013 Super Bowl had been promoted in teasers before the big game.

Indeed, Volkswagen’s “The Force” commercial, with some 5.2 million shares online, is still the most shared ad of all time, according to the Unruly report.

The surprise factor doesn’t matter as it once did,” Justin Osbourne, the general manager of brand and marketing communications at Volkswagen of America, told The New Yorker. “Our goals are about how many total views we can get. To assume that that is going to happen within forty-eight hours is cutting yourself pretty short.”

Advertisers throwing for touchdowns in the pre-Super Bowl game have pursued different strategies for advertising their advertisements. 

Some advertisers – already paying a rate of $4 million for about 30 seconds of playtime on Feb. 2., up from about $3.5 million for the same spot last year – are shelling out even more to choreograph a full-scale marketing campaign for their ads with slick, funny, or outright mysterious trailers.

This year, Volkswagen is teasing audiences with a ironic, backroom-style video in which Volkswagen advertisers try to come up with an ad tailored to American audiences, an apparently smarmy, tasteless lot: a buxom woman dances, a car gleams, a bodybuilder flexes his pecks, and lots of people fall down. “We’re working on it,” flashes on the screen. 

On Tuesday, Volkswagen put out a new commercial that has been variously interpreted as its final take for game day, or another preview for a still-to-come spot.

Other companies, perhaps unwilling to dole out even more dollars than they are already spending on the Super Bowl ad spot, but still wanting a bit of the pregame action, have released in advance not teasers, but their entire commercials.

This year’s Axe ad was released weeks before the big day and is being promoted via the hashtag #KissForPeace; the ad, in an uncharacteristic whirl for the company, sells not sex, but love (and deodorant), needling consumer hearts with a world where dictators and soldiers love not making war, but loving beautiful women.

Other full commercials released ahead of the game include one from Dannon – in which Mr. Stamos enjoys some yogurt and reunites with fellow Full House pals – and ads from Chobani, Heinz Ketchup, Cheerios, and Jaguar. Bud Light, GoDaddy, and Pepsi, among others, have all released teasers.

"GoDaddy started pre-releasing our Super Bowl commercials back in 2006, well before it became the ‘norm.’ The reason? Opportunity," said Elizabeth L. Driscoll, vice president of public relations at GoDaddy, in an e-mail. "The ads are discussed beforeduring and after the game, which gives us the opportunity to engage potential customers for a longer period of time."

In recognition of the commercials for commercials trend, new platforms are cropping up this year to host the aspiring viral videos. This month, Google added a space for promo Super Bowl ads to its annual YouTube Ad Blitz channel, which curates game day commercials.

The website is similar to Hulu’s four-year-old “AdZone,” where Hulu says that it plans to post promos of some ads on the hub, starting two days out from the game, The New York Times reported.

Still, not all advertisers are in on the getting-in early trend. Chrysler, long a brand-to-watch Super Bowl advertiser, appears so far to have kept this year to its tradition of holding audiences in abeyance until the game. The mum's-the-word play has in the past served the company well; in 2012, Advertising Age named Chrysler its 2012 marketer of the year, according to the New Yorker. 

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