Snickers produced and broadcast its Super Bowl ad live in the third quarter, Hyundai filmed its spot during the game and aired it immediately after the final whistle, and Tide shot a sequence that started out looking like it came live from Fox's broadcast studio. This is the laborious, creative future of TV advertising, fueled as much by live-streamed sensations like Chewbacca Mom as by consumers' terrible attitude about typical commercials.
That's not to say tricky one-offs are the new normal. "Is this what we are doing moving forward and are all of our commercials live and at the last minute? God, I hope not," said Dean Evans, chief marketing officer at Hyundai Motor North America.
But these and other grabby executions will make up a widening streak in the TV mainstream.
The heroic efforts on Super Bowl Sundaydemonstrate how hard it is to pierce viewers' indifference to ads. The Super Bowl is the one broadcast where tens of millions of people not only watch commercials on purpose but discuss, analyze and engage with them. Many viewers tune in specifically for the brand messaging. And even in this ripe environment, several marketers wanted to take it a step further with live or nearly live commercials.
"Each year, we want to top what we've done before to thrill fans and deliver something new and breakthrough," said Allison Miazga-Bedrick, brand director at Snickers. "As people are consuming live entertainment across live platforms more and more, it made sense to choose the Super Bowl—one of the preeminent live TV events—for a live ad."
The $5 million price for 30 seconds in this year's game and intense competition from other advertisers created motivation enough to try to stand out, of course. But on any other day, the competition is the smartphones in consumers' hands, ad skipping, and viewing platforms that don't even have ads to skip. The Super Bowl might as well be a showcase for advertisers' best new plays.
Fox pushed to sell new ad formats, not just live spots, during its coverage of Super Bowl LI. While not all of its ideas materialized, its efforts indicate why TV networks need to innovate the ad model and find more consumer-friendly formats.
"It is more unique today than ever before to have a captive audience for a brand to tell a story," said Joe Marchese, president-advanced advertising products at Fox Networks Group. "We don't have shared TV experiences anymore. This is one of the only nights where there is a massive, concurrent audience. So we want to take the opportunity to do something as special as possible."
The recent advance of live video on social media also played a role in the desire to extend real-time messaging to the Super Bowl.
"This trend has a lot to do with Facebook Live," said Kirsten Atkinson, VP-media and brand integration at Walton Isaacson. "The social media space pushed advertisers to find unique ways to engage. This bled into the traditional space and begs the question, why wouldn't we be doing this in broadcast?"
That was certainly part of the thinking for Snickers, which hosted a 36-hour digital live stream leading into its live TV commercial. The feed featured celebrities like Betty White and Adam Driver, who also starred in the TV spot, as well as social influencers.
With many of the Super Bowl's ads prereleased online days, if not weeks, in advance, moreover, the power of spontaneity and surprise grew even stronger.
Hyundai is trying to "zig while others are zagging," Mr. Evans said.
The automaker's postgame commercial used footage shot during the game at a U.S. military base overseas, where the automaker surprised soldiers watching in high-tech viewing pods with virtual family reunions.
"How do you get people to be tuned in today more than ever before?" Mr. Evans added. "And so that was one of the pieces that went into our logic."
Sunday's Super Bowl was just the latest reflection of processes that have been underway for a while, according to Sarah Aitken, chief marketing officer at the agency network Iris Worldwide. "Brands and agencies have been creating innovative digital and real-world brand experiences for years from both a marketing and product perspective, inviting people to participate in the brand in a far deeper way and creating much more brand love and loyalty as a result," Ms. Aitken said. "What we're seeing in Super Bowl LI is the beginnings of that kind of mold-breaking thinking stepping into the most traditional of formats—TV spots during a sports game."
While none of Tide's Super Bowl commercials aired live, the detergent brand went to great lengths to make it look like the first one started that way, re-creating the commentator booth at NRG Stadium in Houston and simulating other details of the live broadcast.
TV was built on live broadcasting, including live commercials performed by Jack Benny, George Burns and others. In recent years, late-night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have taped "live" ad segments in their prerecorded shows. But TV networks and marketers have been taking a deeper look at such tactics, which are often viewed as tacky or gimmicky. Their experiments have included live ads but also a reduction in the number of spots in a commercial break and weaving in branded content that's linked to the program it's surrounding.
Turner has been replacing traditional commercial breaks on its cable networks like TNT and TruTV with "native pods," essentially longer pieces of ad content that it produces internally for brands. During the World Series, Fox aired a commercial-free break sponsored by T-Mobile, which featured in-game analysis instead of typical ads. And in December, NBC aired live spots for Oreo, Toyota and Reddi-wip during its broadcast of the musical "Hairspray Live."
The hope is these types of ads will feel more like the programming that viewers tuned in to watch, making them more likely to engage with the brand message and less likely to change the channel.
The biggest hurdle will be convincing marketers to pay more to buy out full commercial pods to run native ads or to invest the manpower and resources needed to execute a live ad. The question for marketers is whether it's worth the added cost and risk. At least for the Super Bowl, it seems the answer is yes.
Contributing: E.J. Schultz