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Advertisers Catch Super Bowl Virus

Super Bowl ads may start their lives in front of 90 million viewers this Sunday, but advertisers are also paying as much as $2.6 million for 30-second spots they hope will kick off viral Internet campaigns. And there's evidence to show their plan will work.

But will that viral success be worth losing control of their brand?

According to the Nielsen Company, the 2006 Super Bowl was the highest-rated TV show of the year, attracting more than 90 million U.S. viewers. The advertisers, who paid an average of $2.5 million per 30-second spot, saw an immediate return on their investments the following Monday, as Web traffic to their Internet sites increased 55 percent.

As a result, Super Bowl advertiser PepsiCo and various other unnamed advertisers this year bought video ads, arranged media buys, set up mini-sites and contracted search marketing with Yahoo to put themselves in a position to impact as many consumers as possible on Sunday, a Yahoo spokesperson told internetnews.com.

But be wary, advertisers. Although engaging Internet users can lead to viral gold, there are plenty of pratfalls that line the path under that rainbow.

In the process of following the new viral rules for Super Bowl advertising, advertisers are going to lose at least some control of their brand.

That loss might be an odd contrast between an ad served next to your ad when its shown on iFilm or something more brand-image-detrimental, such as a bored YouTuber's mocking video mash-up. Either way, it's going to happen.

Advertisers for this year's Super Bowl include Anheuser-Busch, GoDaddy.com, Coca-Cola, GM, Frito-lay, Salesgenie.com, Revlon, NFL, Garmin, Taco Bell and Nationwide Insurance. Each has a Web presence, but not quite the Web 2.0 experience as fellow Super Bowl XLI advertiser General Motors, which already learned the new rules the hard way.

Last spring, GM brand Chevy announced an open contest for Internet users to create a new advertisement for its Tahoe truck. Chevy provided clips of its truck in various terrains, as well as music for users to edit together with their own text to overlay on the videos.

Many rather pleasant efforts were put forth. But so were more than a few less genial depictions of Chevy's product and its impact on the environment. Nearly a year later, many of the negative ads are still available on YouTube.

For its Super Bowl XLI, Chevy took a different, more controlled approach at what the company still called "consumer-generated" content. The "Chevy Super Bowl College Ad Challenge" shed the light on only five out of 820 submissions.

The NFL and Frito-Lay have followed Chevy's lead, each trumpeting the user-generated origins of their Super Bowl commercials, while having maintained careful control over any content to hit the air or the Internet.

But if the NFL, Chevy, Frito-lay or any of the other advertisers are going after that viral effect, all of that careful control might go for naught. Once they put your video out there, there's no telling what context it might be found in next.

Search for "Taco Bell Super Bowl" on YouTube and not only does the company's 1997 Super Bowl ad show up, but so does a video titled "TOMORROW IS BIBLE BOWL," tagged with a set of words to make a brand manager faint.

Other Super Bowl video searches will turn up more intentional abuses of brands, such as "requiem4massMedia," a mash-up featuring Super Bowl ads from the past set to a gloomy soundtrack.

But ultimately, counter-cultural consumers might not even be a Super Bowl advertisers worst enemy. It might be other advertisers.

One price an advertiser has to pay to go viral on video platforms such as YouTube, iFilm or Live Leak, is going viral on sites that support themselves through ads. Would Anheiser-Busch choose a banner ad encouraging users to "Snap A Pic of the Chick and get 15 free ringtones" for the search results page featuring its past Super Bowl ads?

Given the new rules of Super Bowl advertising it doesn't much matter, does it?