Op-Ed: We’ve Only Scratched the Surface with Super Bowl Digital Advertising

By Kiran Aditham 

HUGE senior marketing strategist Josh Seifert returns for 2012, this time tackling, what else, the Super Bowl and the ad opportunities that come with it–specifically in the digital arena. Seifert looks at how some marketers have fared when it comes to digital advertising around the big game and how we’ve only just begun. Take it away, sir.

Reading last month that the Super Bowl would be streamed online for the first time, it struck me that digital advertising could start getting a whole lot more creative than expanding banner ads and pre-roll video. An online streaming Super Bowl will deliver a captive, real-time audience on a scale atypical for online. And with it, digital advertising opportunities never before possible. For sometime, Super Bowl advertisers have turned to digital to extend their TV efforts.


While the TV audience is massive, digital extensions create added buzz among the press and consumers, making spots even more effective. The Pepsi Refresh Project took this to an extreme in 2010, generating massive buzz and online traffic by not advertising in the Super Bowl. To overly simplify, digital at Super Bowl time has meant online contests to win a trip to the game (VISA’s You + 10 sweepstakes), create a commercial (Dorito’s Crash the Super Bowl Contest), or alternatively, digital has been a destination for branded content or e-commerce (GoDaddy.com Girls videos). While innovative use of online may have impacted the ads to a degree, the real excitement has always been about the TV spot, not about anything digital.

From time immemorial, the Super Bowl has represented an unparalleled opportunity for advertisers to connect with a mass audience of potential customers. Almost three decades old, Apple’s “1984” spot set a new bar and is still regarded as one of the best commercials of all time. While in a class of its own, this still represents the kind of impact that Super Bowl advertisers strive for every year, with mixed results. And, with consumers choosing between more media options than ever before, the Super Bowl remains—and is perhaps becoming more important as—a unique opportunity to reach a very large audience with a singularly compelling message.

Beyond the commercials themselves, advertisers like Doritos seem to focus on digital to amplify their brands and give their consumers a voice in that brand. Their five-time crowdsourcing contest to actually create Super Bowl spots is a great example of using digital to generate buzz, interest and involve loyal customers in the creation process. And people are paying attention, even if only in derision. Since the contest began with this spot running in 2007’s Super Bowl, it seems that someone in the industry predicts the imminent end of the ad business, it would seem that in a digitally connected world, an expensive agency isn’t necessary to create a fan favorite commercial.

While CPG companies use digital Super Bowl extensions to get customers more involved in the brand, online companies use the airtime to do what T.V. spots do—drive awareness, something that digital advertising has been, admittedly, fairly ineffective at comparatively. In the dotcom heyday of the late nineties, tech companies flush with venture capital sought to grow their websites as fast as possible, and they turned to exuberant spots to do so—who doesn’t remember the now defunct Outpost.com blasting gerbils at a wall, thanks to this gem.

More recently, advertisers like GoDaddy.com drive television viewers online by promising “racy” content once they get there. For 2011, the daily deals site Groupon ran a questionable Tibetan-themed spot. With the immediate backlash in social media, Groupon learned that shock value content doesn’t necessarily generate the kind of awareness you want. Moreover, Groupon inadvertently demonstrated that T.V. spots no longer have to be confined to a broadcast, one-to-many communication model. As technology and new viewing habits take the Super Bowl and its advertising squarely into the digital world, there will be richer opportunities for ads to bring to life a story and connect with an audience more powerfully than the thirty second spot alone.

This year will likely see digital ads as carbon copies of the television broadcast, with run of the mill banner placements, microsites, etc. In coming years though, it may be less about the entertainment value of an individual spot, and more about how an insightful ad can spark real time interaction among people participating in social media while consuming mass media; a kind of mashup between the Old Spice Guy YouTube campaigns and the Super Bowl.

As Groupon experienced last year, this kind of activity is already beginning to happen without a brands input, too often as a social media/PR nightmare. But, why shouldn’t immediate online interactions become an intended, managed, part of the communication model? It’s already been made clear that the value of a big splash Super Bowl spot can extend far beyond the few seconds of airtime, but digital’s ability to make this value even greater has only just been scratched.

Much as TV programming started as a video broadcast of radio programming, online video—and associated advertising—has so far just been television on the Internet. With the high stakes and outsize budgets for Super Bowl advertising, I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see more engaging digital marketing that leaves behind banners and pre-roll that was really meant for television.