Super Bowl Ads: Jennifer Hudson Seeks Touchdown For Local Commercials

Analysis: Smaller marketers have tried to ambush the Big Game for years with cheaper spots on local stations, but social media may bring them more attention than once dreamed possible

When NBC broadcasts Super Bowl XLIX from Phoenix this Sunday, viewers can expect to see Danica Patrick holding forth for GoDaddy, Mindy Kaling cavorting for Nationwide Insurance and Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel slipping into their old “Today” rapport for BMW. But some TV watchers may miss singer and Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson helping to boost the profile of American Family Insurance.

That company’s ad will be seen in only 70 markets in the U.S., and in some cases, may air at different times in different parts of the country. Some viewers may see a 30-second ad and others may see one that lasts 60 seconds. For Hudson, the distinctions don’t seem to matter. “I’ve performed at the Super Bowl three times, but you know, I never would have imagined being in a commercial in the Super Bowl,” she said in an interview. Even if the ad will appear regionally and not across the nation, she said, “It’s just as great.”

Advertisers who didn’t want to spend the millions required to air a national advertisement seen by every viewer of the Super Bowl have for years tried to jump on the big-event bandwagon by picking up cheaper ad time on local TV stations running the extravaganza, then claiming they too had ads all set to run in the Big Game. American Family’s effort, however, isn’t just talk. It would seem to come with a significant level of investment (though executives declined to quantify the company’s spending). What’s more, the advent of social media and digital pass-along is fast erasing some of the distinctions between TV’s priciest ads and those that want to look just like them.

“If you get it on in a local market, you can get some buzz, you can get it going virally and it’s just as good,” said Brian Sheehan, an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

A case in point: Last year, roast-beef emporium Arby’s ran a commercial lasting a whopping 13 hours in length on a single MyNetwork affiliate in Duluth, Minnesota. The ad showed how the company smoked its brisket – literally. Word of the stunt in social-media circles was enough to lure at least 350,000 unique visitors to a website where the average visit lasted 38 minutes.

American Family, an insurance company based in Madison, Wisconsin, is treating its ad as if it were on par with those expected this weekend from PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch InBev, said Telisa Yancy, the company’s vice president of marketing. The insurer tapped BBDO, one of the nation’s biggest ad agencies with a reputation for devising classic Super Bowl ads for Pepsi and Snickers. It will introduce a new tagline. And its ad will show Hudson in a 1940s diner setting singing along with five people who want to be as famous as she is (a scene is pictured, above).

“It is indeed a Super Bowl commercial,” said Yancy, noting this will mark the third year the company has tried the strategy.

NBC and the National Football League might beg to differ. They have an interest in narrowing the field for Super Bowl advertisers, not widening it. The exclusive chance to reach what has in recent years been around 110 million viewers at a single moment is one of the factors behind the rapidly increasing cost of advertising in the Super Bowl. NBC has sought between $4.4 million and $4.5 million for a 30-second spot in the game, and its ad-sales executives have candidly acknowledged a diminished appetite for the event by auto advertisers has tamped down demand for commercials. Getting advertisers like American Family to buy national inventory would help the economics of the event.

A whole host of other marketers are joining American Family in its grass-roots technique. Some may simply be trying what is known in marketing circles as an “ambush” strategy and hoping the Super Bowl will bring a greater level of attention to advertising that otherwise might not get it. And others are playing up Super Bowl themes in an attempt to make their commercials look like every other member of this year’s Super Bowl ad roster.

Hamburger chain Carl’s Jr. has already generated publicity for its efforts to run an ad featuring a scantily clad model, Charlotte McKinney, during the game on West Coast stations. Friskies cat food, part of Nestle, has announced plans to run a 60-second spot on NBC affiliates in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; Los Gatos, California; and Pawnee, Nebraska. Vox Media, publisher of the tech-news website the Verge, has purchased a single ad set to run during the Super Bowl in Helena, Montana, for just $700. And Newcastle Brown Ale has caused a stir by asking other marketers to take part in a commercial it intends to run on NBC stations during game time.

These marketers are likely to save a lot of money. Like NBC, local stations tend to secure a premium when selling Super Bowl advertising, but the cost is nowhere near the top price. The fee can run from several hundred dollars to several hundred thousand, according to estimates. In 2013, CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves disclosed that the company’s New York station, WCBS, had been able to sell a local ad set to run during the Super Bowl for more than $1 million.

The practice has a growing history. In 2014 the Church of Scientology was able to snap up ad inventory in 13 different markets, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. MillerCoors ran a series of one-second ads for Miller High Life on 25 local NBC stations airing Super Bowl XLIII. And Diageo PLC in 2003 purchased 30-second spots in 64 U.S. markets in 2003 to hawk Smirnoff Ice. Anheuser-Busch InBev, maker of veteran Super Bowl sponsor Budweiser, has long required it be the game’s only advertiser of beer and malt-based beverages.

Advertisers who follow the local-station strategy tend to be restaurant chains, local auto dealers and cable and satellite providers, according to data from Kantar.

For most, the local strategy is borne from a desire to be smart about how money gets spent. American Family Insurance does not sell across the country, said Yancy, the company’s marketing executive, operating in just 19 states. It has little reason to place an ad in California or New York.

Even so, she expects the ad will be seen beyond its geographic bounds. “People will get on Twitter and our Facebook page and afterwards, even in those other states, people will have access to this content.”

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