It was looking like a blowout. And then it became a blackout.
In one of the oddest moments in Super Bowl history -- and perhaps the most challenging environment for marketers since Super Bowl XXV was broadcast in 1991 during the Gulf War -- a lopsided 28-to-6 third-quarter contest between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers came to a sudden halt when a power surge cut electricity to a large part of the Mercedes Benz Super Dome in New Orleans and halted play.
During the strange interlude, CBS more or less stopped showing commercials from Super Bowl advertisers, choosing instead to keep to short breaks with promos for its own programs. Once game play proceeded, the network reran a commercial break containing ads from Bud Light and Subway, concerned -- according to ad executives with knowledge of the network's reactions -- that the outage had somehow disrupted viewing of the spots. In a statement, CBS Sports spokeswoman Jen Sabatelle noted that all the network's commitments to advertisers were "being honored."
The speculation among ad aficionados was immediate: Could the delay threaten ratings for the back half of the game? Would advertisers who needed fourth-quarter and post-game views to make their ads work cringe, or worse yet, seek some sort of recompense from the network?
As the game went on, however, concerns may have been leavened by the 49ers' ability to narrow the score, creating comeback drama that many viewers pegged to the blackout's interruption of momentum. Baltimore ultimately topped San Francisco 34-31.
Even so, the blackout could not have been a happy event for Super Bowl sponsors such as Coca-Cola or SodaStream. Coca-Cola was counting on a post-game spot to conclude the story introduced in the spot it ran in the second quarter. And SodaStream, a company that is new to the Super Bowl this year, was set to air a much-anticipated ad in the fourth quarter that poked fun at the beverage industry.
But some Super Bowl sponsors used the blackout to further their own ends. Audi tweeted that it was "sending some LEDS to the @MBUSA Superdome right now." Mondelez International's Oreo posted a picture on Twitter telling users how the cookie was fun to dunk in the dark. And Procter & Gamble's Tide tweeted, "We can't get your #blackout, but we can get your stains out."
It isn't immediately clear what recourse advertisers might have, if any. CBS is likely contractually obligated to air their commercials at a specific point in the game -- and it continued to do just that as game play resumed. What's more, a network doesn't have an easy way to provide a "make good," or extra ad inventory provided to make up for a ratings shortfall, simply because the ratings for the Super Bowl are so outsize that the network would have to run a sponsor's ads again and again across its regular schedule to cobble together a similar viewership.
"Immediately after the power failure in the Superdome, we lost numerous cameras and some audio powered by sources in the Superdome," Ms. Sabatelle said. "We utilized CBS's back-up power and at no time did we leave the air. During the interruption, CBS Sports' Steve Tasker, Solomon Wilcots and our studio team reported on the situation as a breaking news story, providing updates and reports while full power was being restored to the dome including our sets and broadcast booth."
One advertiser, Coca-Cola, was less concerned about the effect the blackout might have on ratings and more worried about keeping its ad effort trending on social media. Prior to the lights going out, its ad, identified by the hashtag #CokeChase, was trending nationally, but was quickly overwhelmed by chatter about the blackout.
"The blackout is not our conversation to have," said Laura Houghton, senior social-media manager at Coca-Cola. As the fourth quarter progressed, Coca-Cola executives grew more optimistic, including Pio Schunker, senior VP-integrated-marketing communications for Coca-Cola North America. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the brand had reached 7.5 million interactions.
Oddly enough, CBS has granted a make-good for a Super Bowl advertiser in the recent past. In 2010, CBS aired two ads back to back, each with the same creative theme of people walking around without pants. Both advertisers involved -- Levi, Strauss & Co. and Careerbuilder -- believed their ads' effectiveness was damaged by the close presence to something similar. Working with its media agency at the time, Omnicom's OMD, Levi's was able to get the network to grant it some ad inventory, according to people familiar with the situation. But Careerbuilder, which has worked independently for several years, was not.
Though a blackout is remarkable for a Super Bowl game, this is not the first time an NFL game has been delayed by a power outage.
In 2011, a Monday Night Football game featuring the 49ers was interrupted twice by a power outage. And a September 2004 power outage resulted in a 10-minute delay of the Houston Texans-San Diego Chargers game at Houston's Reliant Stadium (a stadium named for Reliant Energy, a utility company). CBS, which broadcast that game, lost its signal from the stadium for about 75 seconds. Officials blamed that power outage on a plastic balloon getting in contact with a power line in an area outside of the stadium.
Contributing: Bradley Johnson and Natalie Zmuda