Super Bowl

Snickers' Live Super Bowl Ad Won't Be the First: Schlitz Did It in 1981

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Snickers made big news Wednesday morning by revealing plans to air a live ad during the upcoming Super Bowl, the biggest TV event of the year and the most scrutinized platform for commercials.

Although it described its effort, which will cap a planned 36-hour livestream, as the "first" live Super Bowl commercial, that honor seems to actually belong to Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company, which in 1981 ran a live taste test during Super Bowl XV.

The Great American Beer Test was the culmination of a series of similar challenges pitting Schlitz against rivals on live TV. Some questioned the approach, as The New York Times reported before the game:

The series of one-minute live contests each featuring 100 beer drinkers who favor one of Schlitz's competitors will probably turn out to be the most controversial commercials of the year. They are already causing controversy over the validity of the taste test methodology and the wisdom of Schlitz, a troubled brewer, using any test in which its beer could turn out only 37 percent preferred, as it did last Sunday, when Miller Beer drinkers were used. The week before, again with Miller drinkers, Schlitz got 38 percent preferred, and on the two previous Sundays against Budweiser, Schlitz scored a 46 percent preferred in the first contest and had a tie in the second. Should it have quit when it was ahead?

On Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 25, 1981, retired NFL referee Tommy Bell came on the air during the game and explained that it was time to give "100 loyal Michelob drinkers" a blind taste test putting their brand up against Schlitz.

After the 100 panelists tasted each beer in unmarked cups, Mr. Bell blew his whistle so they could make their picks. The results?

A 50-50 split.

It wasn't quite the kind of overwhelming win that Schlitz undoubtedly wanted, but the prospect of a rough tie was no doubt anticipated, and Mr. Bell was ready with the spin, pointing out that half of these sworn Michelob drinkers had unknowingly just defected.

The ad did run with a very slight time lag, according to Bob Kiger, who produced the spot at Videography Company.

The shoot used two Ampex video tape recorders, one for recording and one for playback, Mr. Kiger said. "A guy had scissors in the middle so in case something terrible happened he'd cut the tape and go to a prerecorded alternative," he said.

The delay was about 7 seconds, Mr. Kiger recalled -- however much time it took for "the travel of the tape through the air from the recording head to the playback," he said.

The ad was "controversial" given the cost of not just the air time but building a stage on which to shoot it in New Orleans near the game, Mr. Kiger said.

The whole execution "was a daring move," he added.

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