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How YouTube and Twitter Ruined Super Bowl Commercials

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

In a few days, the largest television audience it is now possible to assemble will see a new ad for Oikos Greek yogurt. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Getting in front of more than 100 million viewers for 30 seconds costs an estimated $4 million.

Too bad, then, that the spot has already been branded a disappointment: “A lot of setup without much payoff,” Adweek shrugged earlier this week.

This, in miniature, is what the formerly glorious Super Bowl ad game has come to. If you’re ready for some football, you’ll have to wait until kickoff. But if you’re ready for some advertising, a slew of the most-awaited commercials of the year are available right now.

Thanks to advertisers’ frenzy to exploit the possibilities of social media and YouTube, it’s now possible for the letdown to actually precede the hype.

It’s an epic fumble, really. Everybody knows the Super Bowl is that one special day when Madison Avenue’s finest creations receive unrivaled attention — the one time a year that we all stop pretending we hate advertising.

But every year, the ad season has been starting earlier and earlier than the game itself — through online “teasers,” contests, stunts or even full-on pre-releases like that Oikos ad. And in 2014, this Super Bowl Ad Creep has truly gotten out of hand.   

Why has this happened? Because the conventional wisdom in the ad business now insists that Super Bowl ads are no longer just about 30 or 60 seconds of airtime. Instead their impact is engineered to last days, if not weeks, as both anticipation and reaction spool out across social media.

Or at least that’s the theory. And advertisers’ urge to build anticipation is understandable — that’s what advertisers do. But the reality is that it’s now possible to get burned out on Super Bowl XLVIII ads before the opening coin toss.

We’ve seen the freakishly muscled version of GoDaddy endorser Danica Patrick; we’ve seen Squarespace’s grim portrayal of the contemporary Internet; and we’ve seen John Stamos joined by his former Full House co-stars Bob Saget and David Coulier in that Oikos spot.

And when they’re not showing their entire spots early, many advertisers are basically advertising them via “teasers.” While these have been compared to movie trailers, the obvious difference is that a 15-second “tease” of something that lasts 30 seconds is kind of ridiculous:

Here’s a yellow M&M dancing a bit and then getting shot with a dart. “Find out what happens” next, says the teaser.

Here’s a Toyota Highlander teaser in which Terry Crews encounters a bus with a Muppet in it.

GoDaddy has apparently arranged for someone to quit her job via one of its commercials.

And Anheuser-Busch is pushing this strategy particularly hard, with a wave of teasers involving everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger playing pingpong to a llama attending a party. Find out what happens on game day!

But really? A cliffhanger ad? C’mon. You’ve already given me the basic premise. Does it matter if I find out what the next 15 to 30 seconds really hold, or can I just take a bathroom break while the spot airs?

Some use less overt teasers — like this online ad advertising that Stephen Colbert will be in an ad (for pistachios), or this ersatz animal-appreciation spot, featuring Sarah McLachlan and a freaky-looking fictional doberman-chihuahua breed that is the centerpiece of an Audi ad. A few days after the latter teaser, Audi posted the actual commercial, which of course had less impact since the surprising part had already been revealed. And Wonderful Pistashios has released a whole slew of additional short videos of Colbert riffing on football and snacks. I love Colbert, but I’m tired of whatever his ad turns out to be before I’ve even seen it.

There are other tactics for whipping up advance buzz. Co-opting the crowd, for instance, as in H&M asking the general public to choose between two endings for its Super Bowl ad starring David Beckham. This isn’t a terribly new idea — Frito Lay has been doing the crowd thing since the 2007 Super Bowl (and is doing it this year), and the upshot is that a lot of people decide which ad wins long before kickoff. And then there’s pregame controversy. GoDaddy has done that in the past with ads that were too racy for prime time, and this year SodaStream had to edit out a backhand of Coke and Pepsi on Fox’s orders (but of course you can watch it right now).

But the weirdest strategy of all is the advance-release extended version of an ad, like this one for Axe. Instead of the usual Axe bro types, it includes imaginary-yet-familiar dictators benefiting from the body spray’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities. It’s actually a pretty interesting and surprising spot (particularly for this brand). And with more than 3 million views on YouTube, it seems like a pre-game winner. The downside: A potentially discussable ad’s surprise factor has now been largely spent, and it’s hard to imagine how a truncated version can revive it.

This, really, is the whole point. Advertising writer Mark (Copyranter) Duffy recently recalled the impact of the most famous Super Bowl commercial ever, Apple’s “1984” Mac spot. Obviously it was teased nowhere, and “Those of us who saw it when it first aired during Super Bowl XVIII responded with a collective: ‘What the [f***] did I just see?’ ” And in those days, he points out, there was no way to watch it again instantly, even though everyone wanted to: “But we did see it again (and again) later, on news programs.”

That comment gets at exactly what’s wrong with the strategy of trying to play the long game with Super Bowl ads. It’s too much setup, not enough payoff. Maybe someone will really surprise us (maybe it will even be Apple?), or maybe we’ll just have to hope the actual game is compelling. Because the advance-ad strategy makes it impossible for a spot to be what a truly great big-game commercial aspires to be: news.

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