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Super Bowl commercials once top secret, now take a different tact

James Leggate

The audience is still huge. The stars are still tremendously popular. And the budgets are still eye-popping.

But the world of Super Bowl advertising has changed in some ways, according to Mark Penn, the chairman and CEO of MDC Partners, the marketing and communications company behind more than 40 ad agencies, including two that produced national campaigns with spots airing during the Super Bowl on Sunday.

One new development is that viewers already know some of what the ads will show. Advertisers are taking to other channels like social media earlier and earlier in order to generate hype, according to Penn. Just look at all the attention given to the death of Mr. Peanut this past week.

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That exposure is just the opposite of how Super Bowl advertisers thought just a few years ago. One example in 2014 -- when Penn was heading advertising at Microsoft -- the company ran an emotional Super Bowl commercial starring Steve Gleason, the former football player struck with ALS, who narrated the spot with the aid of his Surface Pro tablet.

“When I did it in 2014, we made a huge effort to keep it secret until the last minute,” Penn said. “At that time, people were trying to have the big unveil. What you’re seeing now is, ‘OK, let’s build up an online audience for it. Let’s build some popularity.’ And the actual viewing of it just becomes one piece of trying to get out in American culture.”

For example, MDC partner agency Anomaly led the creative and production for New York Life’s first Super Bowl ad in 30 years to celebrate the company’s 175th anniversary. The minute-long ad narrated by Tessa Thompson (best known for her role in the Marvel films, "Avengers: End Game" and "Thor: Ragnarok) has already been shared online and has racked in hundreds of thousands of views.

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An Audi ad made by agency 72andSunny starring Maisie Williams ( Arya Stark in the HBO smash fantasy TV series "Game of Thrones") driving its new e-tron Sportback electric SUV has drawn millions of views in just a couple of days since it was posted online.

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The character of many ads has also changed, according to Penn. Advertisers used to covet a fun, wacky commercial that was memorable, but now many brands want less of a “beer party” tone. In the words of the famed 2000 Budweiser Super Bowl ad, “Whassup” with that?

“Now many of them are socially responsible, they’re about issues,” Penn said. “They’re about showing you’re a brand that cares about everyone.”

Another 72andSunny spot shows this trend. Its “Inspire Change” ad for the NFL itself features retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin discussing his cousin, Corey Jones, who was fatally shot by a plain-clothes police officer in 2015, and explaining how it inspired him to start the Players Coalition in order to address issues of police-community relations, education, economic advancement and criminal justice reform.

“The best way to inspire change is to be it,” Boldin concludes in the ad for the football league.

And while some people have predicted a drop in interest in Super Bowl commercials, Penn said that hasn’t happened. And this year, even political campaigns are targeting the Super Bowl in a way they haven’t before.

“They know that it’s going to be very important in shaping their brand because it will be highly visible,” Penn said.

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