The 2012 Super Bowl: The Year Advertisers Gave It All Away

Tuning In: From Early Previews to Coke's Broken Rule, Marketers Changed Spots to Suit Modern Demands

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Sometime in the coming year, I predict a learned academic will discover that 2012 marked the end of the Super Bowl ad game as we know it. No longer content to wait for fan reaction after the game, so many marketers released their ads early -- and often in longer versions that were more engaging than their 30-second game-day counterparts -- that many people who watch for the commercials thought the event became moot.

This sage will of course point to Volkswagen's Darth Vader-themed Super Bowl spot from 2011, and how successful it was in capturing the attention of a legion of mouse-tapping desk jockeys with nothing better to do than send office mates and college roommates a link to the spectacle. He will then note how a bevy of automakers -- eager to restore market share after a horrendous recession -- copied the strategy in 2012, trading the surprise and delight their commercials might have evoked on a big screen during the Super Bowl itself for a tally of Twitter mentions, YouTube streams and Facebook likes.

We're not sure if anyone except Chrysler, which for two years held its Super Bowl ad close to the vest and then walked away with the lion's share of plaudits in the aftermath, has taken this thought to heart. What we do know is that digital media, and marketers' fervent desire to use it to goose buzz for their pitches, is making them embrace behavior they might have shunned just three or four years ago. Below, a few early lessons we've spotted in the aftermath of this annual ad showcase.

The Digital Divide: Super Bowl advertisers, once a pretty unified group of marketers, have been torn in two.

On one side is the mass, now eager to stoke social-media buzz in advance of the game. On the other are those who put enough thought into their commercials that they will be talked about not just immediately after the game but for weeks and months. It's surprising not to see more advertisers embrace the strategy established by Chrysler, which for two years now has done more to reestablish the Super Bowl as a venue for topnotch work in the vein of Apple 's hallowed "1984" commercial.

Lesson: In a new-media frenzy, sticking to old-school tactics can still win out.

A New Cola-War Front: The rules of the decades-long marketing struggle between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo may be up for debate, thanks to new digital battlefields.

For years, the two companies have subscribed to a pair of mantras that might be construed as thus: Pepsi will always use commercials to take a poke at Coke, and Coke will always ignore Pepsi .

In this year's Super Bowl, Rule No. 2 shifted slightly. Coke actually acknowledged Pepsi exists. In a fascinating experiment, Coke sponsored a Facebook page featuring two of its animated polar bears watching the Super Bowl broadcast in real time and, on occasion, offering comments and tweets. When ads from PepsiCo came on the air, the bears walked out of their TV-watching cave (during Pepsi 's Elton John spot) or fell asleep (during a Doritos ad, from Pepsi sibling Frito-Lay).

Now you may argue two bears trying not to notice marketing messages from Pepsi doesn't really add up to a wholesale acknowledgement, but hey, small steps, people. The bears could have simply stayed in their seats and not said anything.

That, however, wouldn't ring true. The bears -- and other advertisers -- are caught up in a new venue where old rules of engagement no longer stand. In the old world, Pepsi TV ads never ran anywhere near Coca-Cola TV ads, and the two companies could do what they always did. These days, digital advertising calls for a greater degree of relevancy. Which means that Coca-Cola may have to recognize that its potential customers could be in the midst of interacting with Pepsi when they come upon a Coke promotion.

Lesson: Old rules based upon TV commercials are bending, if not breaking outright.

Paging Allen Rosenshine: In what some may call a startling admission of lack of something new to say, Pepsi has turned once again to an old ad from its longstanding former agency BBDO in hopes of sparking new talk.

If that PepsiMax ad featuring a Coke Zero distributor hankering for some PepsiMax looked familiar, well, chances are you probably saw it in 1996 when it featured a Coke rack-jobber getting caught on a security camera trying to get a Pepsi while the Hank Williams songs "Your Cheatin' Heart" played in the background. The spot is a classic, and we're curious if Michael Patti, the veteran former BBDO and Y&R creative executive widely given credit for the concept, is seeking royalties.

This isn't the first time modern Pepsi has tapped its BBDO past (where Mr. Rosenshine once ran the place and was an instrumental part of the agency's relationship with Pepsi ). In 2010, the company reworked another old BBDO ad -- from 1995 -- that featured Coke and Pepsi delivery drivers meeting up in a diner.

Our question: Why does Pepsi insist on whipping up modern versions of BBDO ads when it currently works with TBWA/Chiat/Day, makers of the Apple "1984' spot -- arguably the best-loved Super Bowl ad of all time? Does the soda company think echoes of its "greatest hits" have more resonance among the video-streaming public than anything new it might do?

Lesson: Don't put a new agency into a straitjacket by making it rehash old work.

Flat Bud? Couch potatoes looking for the usual bursts of frat-boy humor from Anheuser-Busch InBev may have been disappointed this year. Two ads for Bud Light Platinum may as well have used copy from a J. Crew catalog. Another featuring the stately Clydesdales was more hokey than inspirational.

So radically changed has the maker of Budweiser become in its last few outings that New York Times ad scribe Stuart Elliott declared: "A toast is in order. The frat-boy humor with misogynistic overtones that has long sullied Super Bowl spots for Bud Light beer was refreshingly absent." Yet there was nothing refreshing about what the company put on in its place.

We're not saying we miss the crotch-biting dogs, lothario apes and flatulent horses of yore. And we do understand that Bud's current flock of competitors include wine, craft beers and more. But we do long for hits like "Whassup?!" and the lizards and frogs. Isn't there a happy medium?

Lesson: Even when you have new things to offer, try to give the people what they want.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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