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Super Bowl Ad Previews Sacrifice Element of Surprise

The Super Bowl doesn’t kick off till Sunday, but in terms of advertising, it already feels like we’re well into the second quarter.

As America’s national day of television and marketing, the NFL’s big game has long been a showcase for advertisers. But where those lavishly produced spots were once approached as closely guarded secrets, companies have moved to maximize the bang for their mega-bucks by capitalizing on media outlets willing to help promote their campaigns, treating these 30-second mini-movies like theatrical blockbusters, down to their own teaser trailers.

What’s gained is obvious: Sponsors secure free media coverage to help offset the cost of the ad buy. Or, in the case of GoDaddy, they generate a whiff of controversy surrounding a spot that was previewed and rather suspiciously pulled, becoming part of the pre-game news cycle.

What’s lost, however, is more subtle — namely, the element of surprise and discovery associated with seeing the creative for the first time during the game. For the comedy-oriented ones, moreover, distributing ads in advance almost feels as if it’s blowing the punchline.

Nevertheless, a seemingly unprecedented number of spots have been posted, leaked or teased in advance, including what might be called extended director’s-cut versions, running longer than what will be shown Sunday. Those ads will then be replayed and analyzed in the Super Bowl’s aftermath, with snap polls rating commercials and marketing professors finding themselves in unexpected demand for sound bites, at least until next year.

The rationale is obvious. If you’re going to spend $4.5 million per 30 seconds of time — plus millions in production costs — why not milk the moment for all it’s worth? But should the pre-game hype diminish the in-game resonance, marketers reveling in all the new ways they’re now exploiting the showcase are potentially guilty of being penny-wise (to the tune of 450 million of them) and pound-foolish.

The teasers also reflect some of the ad industry’s envy toward the movie business, which has mastered the art of enlisting traffic-happy websites as foot soldiers in the campaigns to help promote its wares, including trailers put together so far in advance there’s often no or little actual footage in the can.

The difference is that movies (with the possible exception of the “Transformers” franchise) tell an actual story. In literary terms, if they’re books, commercials are haikus, designed to economically convey a sales pitch wrapped in entertainment trappings.

Admittedly, Super Bowl ads are long past the point of sneaking up on anybody in the way Apple’s famous “1984” spot did. But exposing them so broadly prior to the game would appear to risk undermining their impact in the forum where, ideally, they would figure to yield the maximum value. (As it stands, the lion’s share of the previewed spots have been pretty underwhelming, with perhaps the most clever being the BMW ad pairing former “Today” colleagues Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel, inspired by a technology-challenged clip of the duo from 20 years ago.)

Media buyers are no doubt still balancing the mix on how to wrangle digital platforms and social media in order to make Super Bowl spots pay off, and they’ll surely tinker with these strategies going forward, since there’s no one-size-fits-all formula.

Even so, to borrow a much-discussed story line leading up to the game, while advertisers look determined to make their spots as easy to catch as possible, what they really might be doing is inadvertently letting some of the air out of them.

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