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How Chevrolet Freaked Out Super Bowl Viewers Without Buying an Ad During the Game

Advertisements make the Super Bowl what it is every year. Yet in 2015, one ad made it seem as if it were taking the Super Bowl off the air just minutes before the big event got under way.

In an eyebrow-raising commercial that appeared just before kickoff, General Motors’ Chevrolet stirred up a lot of nervous energy by making it seem as if the feed of the game had been disrupted  by some sort of technological mishap. In just seven seconds, viewers went from an exterior shot of a stadium with an announcer’s voiceover talking about “Super Bowl 49” to a dark screen.  “The beauty of the pre-game event is that everyone is leaning in waiting for the game to start,” said Paul Edwards, vice president of U.S. marketing for the General Motors-owned car unit, in an interview.  “That was one of the most perfect moments we could have chosen.”

The 30-second spot for the Chevrolet Colorado was meant to demonstrate one of the vehicle’s standout features: built-in Wi-Fi. “You could stream the game in it,” audiences were told with onscreen copy before the ad offered new scenes of the truck accompanied by the opening strains of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

In many years, Chevrolet runs ads for its vehicles during the Super Bowl. In 2014, for example, Chevrolet ran two 60-second ads, after sitting out the 2013 contest. But the company’s pre-game surprise shows what can happen when a commercial delivers a message that is tied in almost directly to the content that attracted an audience in the first place and to the behavior they are in the midst of at the moment the ad is seen.

Indeed, more advertisers are trying to devise ads that play off the action of the program they choose to support. Microsoft and Hyundai, for example, have run commercials tied into the zombie themes of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” that would make little sense if aired during different shows. And retailing giant Walmart recently supported NBC’s live rendition of “Peter Pan” late last year with ads that featured the story’s Tinker Bell character and played off the scenes of the play audiences had just watched.

Chevrolet’s ad was so tied into the kickoff moment that Edwards said he worried in the moments before it aired when he noticed the ad used footage of a stadium with a closed roof.  The top of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, had been retracted, and NBC displayed shots of the blue skies the crowd could see. Would audiences notice the glaring detail and spot the ad for what it was?

In Boston, researchers noticed a definite payoff just after the airing of the spot was complete. Innerscope Research, a company that specializes in testing emotional response to advertising, was working with 30 participants in a Boston lab and monitoring their responses to what they were watching during NBC’s Super Bowl coverage. “There was a big spike in emotional engagement when it looked like the feed started to go out,” said Dr. Carl Marci, the company’s chairman and co-founder, via email. “Our audience started shifting in their seats and wondering what was happening. And strong reactions around the time Chevy revealed itself.”

Viewers started to visit Web pages associated with the Colorado, according to data from Edmunds.com, an automotive-industry research organization. Four different ads for the Colorado during NBC’s pre-game programming helped boost site traffic to Colorado pages by 25%, Edmunds.com said, and a whopping 1104% during the first quarter of the game

The original idea for the Chevrolet spot, called “Blackout,” came from Commonwealth, an ad agency that is part of Interpublic Group’s large McCann Worldgroup unit. The agency, which is headquartered in Detroit, was founded in 2012 with the express purpose of serving all of Chevrolet’s needs around the globe. The agency was originally a joint venture of McCann and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, an agency that is part of rival Omnicom Group, but Interpublic took over the venture in 2013.

To put the idea into action, Commonwealth had to hash it out with NBC, Edwards noted, since the commercial made it seem as if the network had gone off the air. The two sides “had some healthy collaboration to make sure we could pull it off,” he explained.” Carat, part of Japan’s Dentsu Inc., was involved with purchasing the advertising time from NBC.

Chevrolet’s gambit was bold, but the company may actually have achieved a Super Bowl result without having to pay Super Bowl prices. NBC sought between $4.4 million and $4.5 million for a 30-second ad that ran during Super Bowl XLIX, but ads appearing in pre-game and post-game coverage have in the past gone for significantly less. In 2011, for example, Fox sold pre-game packages for prices ranging between  $100,000 to $2 million.

The “Blackout” ad provoked some surprised responses from viewers using Twitter, but reaction coming into Chevrolet is “over 90% positive,” Edwards said.

Some ads meant for the Super Bowl find their way to other programming, but the Chevrolet executive said the automaker’s pre-game effort is a one-time affair. “We thought we had a big enough idea that warranted this critical placement,” he said.  “If you’re going to do that once, you do it. It would be hard to replicate.”

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