Keeping a spot secret used to be rule No. 1 for Super Bowl advertisers. Now companies are falling over themselves to get them out on YouTube or as part of online contests, like Volkswagen has done this year.
The Super Bowl has always been a social event, but during this year's battle pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots, getting social will happen on screens and the sofa.
Analysts say this year is a turning point for social media's incorporation into the biggest mass-media event of the year, and advertisers are taking note.
"The trend in social media with the Super Bowl has been building over the past two or three years," said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University. "This year, we're really seeing it go to a totally new level where marketers are making social networking a core part of their Super Bowl efforts."
Glen Gilmore, a social media strategist and professor of digital marketing at Rutgers University, said companies have begun to realize that social networks aren't just for kids anymore. "There's a recognition among big businesses that social media is the new marketplace that they've got to be part of the conversation."
Last year, 111 million people watched the Super Bowl, according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched TV event ever, and breaking the audience record set the year before by the 2010 Super Bowl. Advertisers pay heavily for the privilege of reaching all those eyeballs, to the tune of $3.5 million for a 30-second slot.
For that kind of cash, many companies have decided to eschew the longstanding practice of keeping a new commercial under wraps until its big reveal during the game. Instead, big advertisers like Frito Lay and Volkswagen view the commercial itself as the culmination to an entire campaign of anticipation. "For many marketers, it's really a month-long event," Calkins said.
To extend the life of their $3.5 million investment, companies build excitement by running teaser clips either on TV or on the Internet that allude to or provide a sneak peek to the commercial. Automaker Volkswagen has already rolled out a minute-long clip of a canine chorus barking music from "Star Wars."
A canine chorus barks a familiar tune. Keep an eye out for our 2012 Game Day commercial—it will all make sense. Love Star Wars and Volkswagen? Create an Intergalactic Invite to your Big Game party here: http://vw.com/star-wars-invite
Some advertisers run the actual commercial ahead of time, but some marketing professionals say that can diminish its impact. "This year there seems to be more tendency to release the ads a week early. This is kind of a risky tactic to us," said Peter Daboll, CEO of Ace Metrix, a company that measures ad effectiveness. "With such a large audience watching the game, there's a certain surprise appeal."
Another way advertisers create pre-game day buzz is to create interactive elements, such as soliciting user-generated content or inviting people to vote on some element of the campaign. "Traditional advertising was just a one-way broadcast tool," said Mitch Germann, vice president at Edelman Digital. "These efforts are a two-way conversation." Frito Lay, which advertises its Doritos brand of tortilla chips during the game, has combined the two by asking website visitors to vote on which user-produced video will run in the commercial spot.
Sporting events are a perfect fit for interactivity and social media, according to Germann.
"Sports fans in general just love to talk. They love to talk about the game, their favorite teams and players," he said. "They love to brag and social media provides such a great platform to allow them to have those conversations in real time."
When Denver Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow threw a game-winning touchdown a few weeks ago, Germann said there were 9,000 Tweets per second about the play. "Social media has become a natural for sports… from a statistics perspective," he said. Advertisers want that constant chatter, since it increases the likelihood that their commercial will get talked about not only during, but after the game.
Ads with a twist at the end or that are humorous prompt people to share them with others, according to Jonah Berger, assistant marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "Things that violate our expectations, or are novel or surprising in some way are going to be shared," he said.
The action on the field itself can contribute to a state of mind that makes people more likely to post, share or tweet. "The situation itself can evoke high arousal, which can lead people to share all types of things," Berger said. "If the game is suspenseful and if people are on the edge of their seats, they're more likely to share anything."
But social media, for all its benefits, isn't without pitfalls. "I think the challenge we hear most often is that they lose control of the message when they open themselves up," Germann said. "When they put the conversation in the hands of the viewers or audience, you never know what they're going to say."
While smart companies prepare talking points and replies in advance, the fallout from an ill-conceived commercial can be magnified by the extended conversation that takes place on Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. "There are definitely boundaries within the social space, and businesses at times mistake the fun and entertainment of social media for a license to ignore social boundaries," Gilmore said.
"In most cases, when a company gets into trouble, they were deliberately trying to shock people," Calkins said. "Shocking people isn't the best approach on the Super Bowl. Surprise is nice, but shock is a dangerous place to go."
The game is Feb. 5.