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Mercedes Will Crash the Super Bowl as Ambush Ads Make Digital Advances

Mercedes Benz hopes Super Bowl viewers will turn away from the event’s celebrated commercials this Sunday and take part in a Mercedes commercial instead.

The automaker isn’t buying one of the many $5 million ads that will play a significant role in NBC’s telecast of Super Bowl LI. But many viewers of the gridiron classic may think the company si part of the proceedings anyway. On Super Bowl Sunday (or, perhaps, shortly thereafter,) Mercedes-Benz plans to give away one of its AMG C 43 Coupes, a sporty offering that retails for around $55,900. All someone has to do is keep a finger on a streaming-video version of the car that will roll across their smartphone screens during the Super Bowl for those who register to play, says Mark Aikman, general manager of marketing services for Mercedes-Benz USA.

Consider the game a modernized version of the old car-dealer promotion that granted a free car to the last person on the lot who kept their hands on the vehicle. The last person touching it will win the car.

At Super Bowl parties, “we realize everybody is talking about commercials. But a we started looking around everyone is also on their phones the entire time,” says Aikman. “What if there were an element of stickiness that kept people on their phone the entire time they were at the parties? It doesn’t have to pull you away from the game. It doesn’t have to pull you away from the party.  But it capitalizes on that fascination everyone has with their mobile device.”

Tens of marketers try to “ambush” the Super Bowl each year, but digital techniques are lending such efforts a new level of sophistication. For decades, advertisers who didn’t want to pony up the millions of dollars in ad time and production costs required for a Super Bowl commercial have tapped a host of me-too techniques that made consumers think of football and the “Big Game.” Yet they never really seemed part of the day.

Now, they do. “If they can link to the event with social media without taking out the $5 million ads, it’s a good way to go,” says  Charles Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova School of Business, who regularly studies Super Bowl commercials. Newcastle Ale in 2014 suggested the new possibilities by running a series of web videos featuring actress Anna Kendrick talking about a Super Bowl ad for the brew that was never going to be made. “Turns out they don’t have the money or permission to make a Super Bowl commercial,” she says while getting her hair styled. “They can’t even say ‘Super Bowl.'” Each time she uttered the event, she was bleeped on the soundtrack.

Let’s be clear: None of these efforts represent true Super Bowl ads.

True Super Bowl commercials cost millions of dollars. NBC has been seeking $5 million or more for a 30-second spot for its February 4 broadcast. Advertisers often pony up hundreds of thousands more to enlist celebrities, license pop songs, and create special effects. And the ads have to pass muster for hundreds of thousands of viewers all watching at the same time. Fox’s 2017 broadcast of Super Bowl LI reached 111.3 million people, according to Nielsen.

 “I think it’s safe to assume that this is probably less expensive than the typical Super Bowl media and production,” says Aikman of the Mercedes promotion.

To get around the eye-popping costs, some marketers run ads on local TV stations, hoping to reach Super Bowl viewers in one or a few markets for significantly reduced costs. Some launch ad campaigns leading up to the Super Bowl, but never use its actual name or NFL trademarks (something only true Super Bowl advertisers can do). Others spark publicity by claiming the network airing the game refuses to put their commercial on the air.

Such distinctions are lost on the average Super Bowl viewer, who cares little for Madison Avenue minutiae and can’t tell a local ad break from a national one.

Skittles has been making the promotional rounds on social media trumpeting the fact that it’s creating a Super Bowl ad for a single viewer, a California teenager. Tostitos has created a digital site where visitors can make their own Super Bowl-worthy commercial, complete with many of the elements – puppies, a celebrity pitchman, talking baby, etc.  – that are found during the game every year. But neither product will be shown in an ad during the NBC broadcast.

Skittles and Tostitos may share an advantage. They are manufactured by Mars and Frito-Lay, two companies that are advertising in Super Bowl LII – giving rise to the notion that these ads are less of an “ambush”  and more of a “piggyback.”

Mercedes has advertised in the Super Bowl four times, says Aikman, most recently in last year’s event. But the timing didn’t make sense for the company in 2018, he says. Most companies use the launch of a new product or model as the spark for taking a spot in the Super Bowl, and marketing experts often deride advertisers who take to the extravaganza with no good reason to be there.

To get attention for its effort, called “Last Fan Standing,” Mercedes will run a teaser video on places like YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, telling people all they need to play is “your phone, a finger and focus.” Mercedes will be able to change the conditions of the streaming car depending on how many people are playing, says the executive. Registration won’t open until February 4, and the company is determined to wait it out to see who will be the last to have their finger on the digital auto.

Don’t worry, NFL. Super Bowl LII Iin 2019 will be held in Atlanta – at Mercedes-Benz stadium. Perhaps the automaker will return to traditional Super Bowl advertising at that time.

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