A $15K Super Bowl Play

Unlike many Super Bowl marketers, Richard Belfry isn’t worried about his investment in the game. That’s because Fox rejected his ad for JesusHatesObama.com, which sells satirical T-shirts and novelty items opposing the president. So Belfry put into action Plan B: The banned Super Bowl ad approach that relies on the news media and digital culture’s obsession with controversy.

Many rightfully regard the parade of rejected ads as an eye-rolling sideshow to the main circus that is the Super Bowl, but there’s little doubt that this particular bearded lady attracts eyeballs at an enviable cost. Belfry wrote the “Jesus” ad himself: a tame take on dueling Obama and Jesus bobblehead dolls, Belfry’s associate e-mailed 40 or so reporters and bloggers with the news of Fox banning the ad. While many didn’t bite, several others did.

Soon Gawker.com, New York magazine, CNN and dozens of other outlets were covering the controversy. On YouTube, the video racked up nearly 300,000 views in just four days. Not bad, considering the whole effort cost $15,000 without Belfry ponying up the $2.3 million for the pregame ad slot he wanted.

“We’re definitely getting a nice bump,” he said.

The banned Super Bowl strategy dates back to 2005, when Internet registry firm GoDaddy.com had its commercial yanked after running in only one of the two spots the advertiser had bought. That ad ended up generating some 2,700 news articles and blog posts, according to GoDaddy. It is, in many ways, the “1984” of the banned Super Bowl ad genre.

The following year GoDaddy.com’s commercial was rejected 11 times. In 2008, it actually advertised during the game, promoting its previously rejected ad starring Danica Patrick. “It worked like a charm,” reflects Bob Parsons, chief executive officer of GoDaddy.

The approach has spawned imitators, most notably infidelity dating site AshleyMadison. Unsurprisingly, this year Fox nixed AshleyMadison’s ad, which features a porn actress and centers on workplace affairs. But the $120,000, in-house-produced video is a hit on YouTube, where it has 450,000 views and directs viewers to the AshleyMadison site for the “X-rated version.”

“Chances are if the ad’s been banned, it’s about sex,” said Peter Shankman, author of Can We Do That? Outrageous PR Stunts That Work. ”[And] if it’s about sex, chances are it will be covered in the media. If it’s covered in the media, you’ve covered your spread.”

There’s little doubt that a banned Super Bowl spot can lead to a short-term pop in attention and consideration. AshleyMadison two years ago had a Super Bowl spot rejected by NBC.

The spot, which cost $200,000, garnered over 1 million views on YouTube and attention from Larry King and others. Noel Biderman, CEO of AshleyMadison parent company Avid Life Media, said the buzz surrounding the rejected ad resulted in 100,000 new members—a $2 cost per acquisition, far below the $100 maximum it sets.

“I approach it with a Plan A and Plan B,” said Biderman. “If I don’t get my preferred path of running in the Super Bowl, I’m going to scream at the top of my lungs.”