Inside The PR Bowl: How Marketers Use The Big Game, Spin Ads Even Bigger

There's a sneaking suspicion that GoDaddy.com is eager to have its Super Bowl spot repeatedly rejected by ABC as a publicity stunt--as long as a version gets cleared in time to air in the game. After all, a whiff of advertising censorship usually generates a flood of interest.

GoDaddy has happily fanned the flames through a blog and frequent media appearances by its president, Bob Parsons, chronicling the provocative spot's approval process. Parsons, however, denies that the exposure his Phoenix-area company has received for 13 rejections is intentional.

"I'm not that smart," the flamboyant and friendly executive demurs. "I have been telling it like it is. Have there been PR benefits? Yes. Have there been benefits beyond what we expected? Yes. I'm just this little fat guy out here in Scottsdale who wants a Super Bowl ad."

Parsons and GoDaddy may have unwittingly benefited from the media's interest in Super Bowl advertising, but other advertisers are more deliberate, devising elaborate PR campaigns to generate coverage and extend the value of the costly ad spots. Weapons in the battle include viral photos on the Internet, podcasts, "making-of" videos, ads about the ads, strategic leaks about the creative and press releases in print, audio and especially VNRs, or video news releases, which are a video form of PR that is beginning to compete more directly with conventional TV advertising.

To be sure, PR is a massive industry. No greater evidence is needed than Warren Buffett's recent purchase of Business Wire, one of the major online distributors of company and brand press releases. PR has become even more crucial now with traditional advertising under pressure due to reasons ranging from increased clutter to skipping devices to the heightened importance people place on word-of-mouth.

"These commercials are a huge investment," said Brent Bamberger, vice president of marketing at Bacon's Multivision, which monitors coverage of Super Bowl ads. "They're like movie premieres, and they need to be hyped before the game."

To pump the box office, Burger King has unleashed photos on the Internet underbelly of model Brooke Burke canoodling with "the King." Toyota is set to podcast its ad and distribute audio news releases in both English and Spanish. Emerald Nuts is running newspaper ads to advertise its ad. Nationwide Insurance has disclosed that its spot will feature male model Fabio, but is keeping the lid on other info--for now--to heighten interest. Cadillac has a video news release in circulation, hoping that local news stations will air the piece about its ad as "news." And Anheuser-Busch is joining other advertisers in releasing a "behind-the-scenes" video of its five minutes of Super Bowl commercials, and making a top executive available for interviews by the dozen.

"We want to maximize the 60 seconds," said Adrienne Hayes, a Burger King spokesperson. "We want to turn it into 60 minutes by building anticipation among consumers and whetting their appetite."

So far, BK is on track. An analysis by Multivision shows BK leading the pack with a 33 percent share of voice of all broadcast media coverage on Super Bowl ads (network, cable, and in the top-50 markets). CareerBuilder.com--back in the game with an ad featuring monkeys that make an office environment miserable--is second with 17 percent, followed by GoDaddy at 15 percent, Toyota with 12 percent, Emerald Nuts at 11 percent, and Nationwide with 9 percent. Overall, Multivision says coverage about Super Bowl spots has increased nearly 10-fold since just 2002.

Super Bowl advertisers can be loosely grouped into three categories, the first two of which do extensive pre-game PR. There's the "old reliables" such as Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi, which are in the game every year, and are eager for their brand to be associated with the prestige of the Super Bowl. There's the "look at me underdogs" such as GoDaddy and Emerald, which scrape together enough dough to run a spot and are eager for everyone to know about it. Then there's the "shock and awe" cluster that do no pre-game publicity, hoping that surprise will gain them attention when the ad comes out of nowhere in the game.

With the deluge of pre-game hoopla, some advertisers such as Burger King and Toyota said they considered the contrarian shock value route, but opted against it. Both said they had a compelling story that news outlets would cover--and their ads were complex, so they wanted viewers to ponder them beforehand. Burger King is returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years, and has developed a lavish 60-second spot to resemble the old grand MGM musicals. Toyota has the first bilingual Super Bowl ad ever; the spot promotes the new Camry Hybrid by linking two languages with two kinds of power--gas and electricity. "We had a lot of discussion about it," said Toyota spokesperson Nancy Hubbell. "But our ad is unique in that it has a bilingual component. We're making the connection between English and Spanish, and gas and electricity, and we wanted people to think about it before and then reinforce it."

Nationwide Insurance is sort of straddling the fence between PR blitz and stealth bombing. The company wanted to publicize the fact that it was in the game, but keep the details quiet. Then, USA Today called, and Nationwide decided to drum up interest by leaking that Fabio would star in the spot. The company won't release any other details, although that may change as the game draws closer. "The decision was to play up the surprise factor," said Nationwide spokesperson Mike Switzer. "We believe we're going to catch a lot of people off guard."

Burger King is not avoiding stealth marketing entirely. Besides doing media outreach and a "behind-the-scenes" video about the spot's creation, the company has quietly seeded the Internet with paparazzi-style photos of Brooke Burke cuddling with "the King." The two are frolicking on the beach, snuggling at an NBA game, and holding hands while riding horses. Burke is in the Super Bowl spot, and the company was hoping the snapshots would create a little "water cooler talk." So far, it's worked with Internet blogs and chat rooms buzzing about Burke's new beau and celebrity magazines picking up the photo.

"Online is where 20-somethings and younger people are getting their information," said Mary Durkin, vice president of marketing at Delahaye, a media analysis firm. "You're reaching a demo that's not reached through conventional means of PR or advertising."

Celebrity magazines such as In Style, of course, have a different standard for coverage than other news outlets. Hoping to slide coverage of its Super Bowl ad into newscasts across the country, Cadillac distributed a video news release in which a "reporter" delivers a story, ironically, about the value of news coverage of a spot. Footage rolls, and a Cadillac executive says: "We've purchased the Super Bowl commercial slot for several years and we've found albeit expensive, it's worth every penny...the coverage that we get to help us launch our new products is absolutely spectacular."

Emerald Nuts is hoping to tap into the coverage barrage with a PR effort it hopes will get consumers and retailers excited about its brand. Being linked with the Anheuser-Busch-es and Pepsis is a way for Emerald to raise its profile among the Krogers and Wal-Marts. But the company isn't assuming people will catch its spot--especially since it's in the fourth quarter, when viewers might desert a blowout in droves. Emerald is urging viewers to look for the spot in ads in The New York Times and USA Today running for the 10 days leading up to the game.

Ads about ads piqued the media's interest. "You have ads talking about watching the ads and reporters talking about ads talking about watching the ads," mused Multivision's Bamberger, the analyst.

Unlike the late-game Emerald ad, Anheuser-Busch runs little risk that any viewers will miss its ads. The company has five minutes of ads throughout the game and the pole position: the game's first spot when interest peaks. Still, A-B is making clips from its spots available to the news media--although trying to keep the punch lines under wraps--and, for the first time, releasing a "behind-the-scenes" video of the production process for the 10 spots. Plus, marketing executive Marlene Coulis is making the rounds, doing dozens of interviews.

While Ambassador Coulis is on tour plugging A-B's ads, it's back to the storyboard for GoDaddy. The paradox is that GoDaddy has now generated so much interest in its spot that if ABC ultimately declines to air it, the company could inundate the Web with it and reach more than the 90 million people who will watch the game. Company chief Parsons says that might work this year, but in the end GoDaddy would "lose credibility" as the feisty fighter for free speech. Last year, GoDaddy cleared network standards and practices barriers, only to have its Super Bowl plans thwarted when Fox decided mid-game not to air its ad a second time. The result was a public relations godsend. GoDaddy became a cause célèbre as the media played the spot over and over, and viewers couldn't get enough. "We were struck by lightning," Parsons said. "That was never our intention." Plenty of marketers, however, have made that their goal this year. And the missions are well underway.

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