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Super Bowl ads go for the tease

Once-secret commercials now available long before kickoff

The Super Bowl remains America’s national holiday celebrating football, TV, advertising and all the wanton consumerism surrounding them. Yet if the game’s outcome yields suspense, Madison Avenue has traded in its traditional secrecy for the art of the tease.

Advertisers once shrouded Super Bowl commercials in mystery, eager to surprise consumers with unexpected moments, such as Apple’s legendary Orwellian “1984” ad. Viewers skip bathroom breaks to see what it is that’s worth $3.5 million-$4 million for 30 seconds.

Yet this year, many of these mini-masterpieces (or misfires) of marketing were widely available days before the game — distributed online in advance, sometimes in truncated or expanded form. Fans were even advised about which portion of the game to look for certain spots, such as Paramount’s “Star Trek” plug (second quarter), creating a micro-event within the larger one. And Budweiser has been pouring coin into a cryptic campaign promoting its big-game spots — in essence, airing a commercial for its commercials.

The balancing act performed by marketers and agencies, during what amounts to their annual prom, mirrors the high-stakes conundrum facing the entire media industry, namely: “What should the audience know, and when should they know it?”

How much do you give away in order to tease a new property? What’s the cost, if any, of sacrificing freshness, or the element of surprise? And with these elaborate campaigns using social media create a multiplier effect, what’s the potential expense in diluting the creative impact by exposing it early, albeit to enlist a portion of the public as foot soldiers in your marketing offensive?

In almost every sphere, the pendulum has swung toward revealing more, whether that involves screening portions of movies and entire TV pilots at Comic-Con months before their actual debuts, to the pre-premiere streaming of shows, all in the name of generating excitement.

At first blush, applying similar logic to commercials — given the lengths to which many people go in their determination to avoid them — seems a little strange.

Mike Sheldon, CEO of the ad agency Deutsch LA, helped blaze the trail for this new twist on Super Bowl advertising two years ago when Volkswagen’s “Star Wars”-themed spot — featuring a young boy dressed like Darth Vader — went viral on YouTube prior to the game.

“We got 17 million views before we spent penny one (on air),” Sheldon says, noting the campaign — thanks to all the news coverage, morning-show appearances and free media exposure — was estimated to have yielded “well over $100 million in value” in bang for the client’s bucks.

If the math regarding those figures is perhaps a little fuzzy, the rationale behind them isn’t, which explains why Deutsch repeated its show-your-cards-early tactic with spots in Super Bowl XLVII — that’s this year’s game for the Roman-numerically challenged — for Volkswagen and Taco Bell.

Admittedly, weighing the value of social media in these situations is far from an exact science, but one suspects marketers have become a little too enamored of what their new toys can accomplish. Like most things, if the underlying execution is brilliant, it’s hard to go completely awry, and if it’s not, as they say in TV, nothing kills a bad show faster than good promotion.

As it stands, it’s not uncommon these days for people to worry that programs might be overexposed even before they premiere. That would seem to be a legitimate concern with any strategy that involves being ahead of the game — in the Super Bowl’s case, literally so.

“It’s just a creative arms race,” Deutsch’s Sheldon says, adding that the challenge remains to “figure out a way to try to surprise the audience.”

There’s no question marketers have a new arsenal of tools at their disposal, and in the Super Bowl, an unrivaled showcase to take the introduction of their content — from movies to TV shows to automobiles — out for a test drive.

As to exactly when such attempts to gin up interest become oversaturation or even deleterious, to put it in Big Game terms: It’s often VI of one, half-dozen of the other.

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