The art of the Super Bowl tease: how brands' pre-game ad strategies are changing
In 2007, PepsiCo-owned snack brand Doritos may have changed the course of the Super Bowl forever when it introduced its “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, which opened up game day advertising to ad creators from all over. While the campaign is credited for putting crowdsourced spots on the map, industry observers say it also opened the door to extending advertising’s reach beyond the Big Game itself, leading to all the teaser ads that now have become a regularly scheduled part of Super Bowl programming.
“That, to me, was kind of the watershed event where people thought about a campaign leading up to a Super Bowl ad as opposed to just releasing the ad early,” says Jim Nail, principal analyst on business-to-consumer marketing at Forrester. “There was a whole strategy around building up to the game.”
Since then, however, brands have been rethinking their teaser approach, especially this year as more brands adopt a less-is-more approach as they navigate the peculiar challenges brought by COVID and political strife.
In 2016, on the Monday morning before the Super Bowl, 61 different brands had released 177 unique pre-releases and ads. But at the same point in 2020, only 64 brands had released 24 unique creative pieces — and many of those pre-releases were from PepsiCo for its portfolio, according to data from iSpot. This year the number of brands and the amount of creative work dropped early is down yet again, with only 18 pre-releases from 27 brands in the same period.
Super Bowl advertisers for most of January kept a low profile for fear of appearing tone-deaf as the news cycle was dominated by political unrest amid the Capitol riots and ensuing backlash. “Pretty much Nov. 3 through the inauguration, there was just so much in the news cycle, and just one big shocking story after another, that there really was no room for brands to announce something so frivolous as a Super Bowl ad,” Nail says.
The pandemic also played a role: For categories such as beer, chips and soft drinks, pre-release ads and teasers help put products in people’s minds so they stock up for the game. This year, though, parties are reduced due to COVID, reducing the need for big shopping trips.
The 2021 lineup
One thing has not changed: Teasers are still fueled by celebrities. One factor working in the favor of brands this year is that stars have extra time on their hands due to halted Hollywood productions. So far, celebrities appearing in teasers include Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher for Cheetos, “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander for Tide, Michael B. Jordan for Amazon, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey for Uber Eats, Will Ferrell for General Motors and John Cena for Mtn Dew.
Sometimes teasers are not really that much of a tease: Last week, Tide released both its Super Bowl ad and teaser on the same day. Created out of Woven, they feature Jason Alexander in the form of a giant face hoodie who gets soiled in the midst of the daily pandemic routine.
“The teasers always help us own the message, especially when we’re using recognizable faces,” says Paul Bichler, CCO of Woven Collaborative, P&G’s multi-agency agency for North American laundry brands that incorporates staff from Publicis Groupe, WPP, and P&G in-house media operations. “While they may not be necessary in building suspense, they’re doing part of the job of associating the people and idea of the spot with the brand.”
The creation of teasers and additional content around flagship spots has also become an expected part of the production process in general, especially when there are potential tentpole moments, like the Super Bowl, that a brand is trying to capture.
“We need to bear in mind that the big reach will come from the TV spot, but when we design a production, it allows us to capture content for different platforms,” says Saatchi & Saatchi N.Y. CCO Daniel Lobaton. “We like to be in a place where we can overshoot content that could be repurposed, and having Jason on board felt like something we could capitalize on.”
There is still plenty of evidence to support unleashing Super Bowl marketing before the ad airs in the game. Forrester’s Nail researched the impact of early buzz in 2007 and found that the top six advertisers in pregame coverage that year — Nationwide, Budweiser, Doritos, GM, Chevrolet and Coca-Cola — all finished in the top seven slots in post-game coverage. His findings were published in the Journal of Advertising Research. Those findings still hold today, he says. As brands shell out roughly $5.5 million for 30 seconds of in-game air time, a sharp premium from regular primetime ads, “you can’t justify it on reach alone,” says Nail. “When you add the amount of coverage and discussion when you do the teaser, now you start to get to an ROI calculation that makes sense.”
"For Super Bowl you are guaranteed some level of hit with a teaser because the brand's appearance on the game is news," said one creative leader behind one of this year's Super Bowl campaigns that included a teaser. "It goes into the whole value proposition for the game. It's a no brainer to develop a teaser for the extra press hit."
But brands should carefully carefully consider pre-game timelines. Nail says about two to three weeks ahead of time is the sweet spot in a normal year. Those who release closer to game day will face two main issues. For one, there's a lot of clutter. "A lot of brands launch their previews in the week before the game, so you compete for attention," he says. There's also a shortened runway for word-of-mouth.
"One purpose of the pre-release is to get people to share it in their social media; the longer you have before the game, the more shares and re-shares you could potentially get," he says. Nail says releasing the full ad early works better than a teaser, as it gives the brand time to get its full message out. Plus, since just a fraction of people watch ads before the game itself, many will still see the ads for the first time during the game. He suggests brands that pre-release do so early in the year to help generate more awareness.
Another reason to release early is that those who watch teasers or early ads will quickly weigh in if something misses the mark, perhaps sparing a brand further backlash.
Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, recalls when GoDaddy showed its planned 2015 Super Bowl ad, depicting a puppy being sold online, in late January of that year. The negative reaction was swift, and the brand pulled the ad from the Super Bowl the same day.
“If you have a big problem on your hands it’s better to find that out before the game than during the game,” says Calkins.