Hacking the Super Bowl: Get your brand noticed for less than $10M a minute

Newcastle, Oreo and Old Milwaukee have inserted themselves into the game without buying commercial time. Is the trick getting harder to pull off?

Consumer electronics brand Vizio this month lobbed a tweet to its 29,000 followers offering a coveted prize: tickets to the #biggame.

Though most probably guessed what game Vizio is talking about, consumers wouldn’t know for sure until they read the official rules for the brand’s Ultra Game Plan Sweepstakes. There, Vizio plainly states that the #biggame is none other than the "Super Bowl 50 Football Game." 

Lots of other brands are using #biggame or "big game" as code for Super Bowl 50. Wynn Las Vegas is beckoning fans to cheer on the #biggame at a viewing party at the resort. Pottery Barn is also providing tips via Pinterest for the #biggame and Best Buy is encouraging fans to "Make your #BigGame party epic. 2007 halftime show epic."

Why so coy? As other brands have discovered, the National Football League is quite protective about the trademarked term "Super Bowl" and "Super Sunday." The league even tried to trademark "The Big Game" a few years ago, but was thwarted when opponents pointed out that the yearly Berkeley-Stanford game had been known as "The Big Game" for more than a century. 

Still, many brands still find a way to latch on to the momentum and hype around the Super Bowl and promote themselves. Such brands have a choice: Either celebrate their outsider status or use somewhat convoluted language to tie in to the "big game."

"If you’re a beer brand or a snack food, you’re going to want to advertise around Super Bowl week," says Ben Sturner, founder and CEO of Leverage Agency, a sports marketing firm. Sturner says brands can host parties during the game and even bring in past Super Bowl legends. "There’s no rules against that," he says.

Thumbing their nose at the NFL
Super Bowl sponsorships are hugely expensive. Anheuser-Busch’s six-year sponsorship with the league, which was signed in 2010, was valued at $1.2 billion. Thirty-second ads during the game are also going for as much as $5 million this year. Since that’s more than the annual ad budget for some, there is a natural tendency for brands with low budgets to view themselves as underdogs and outsiders to the spectacle. 

A recent example of this is Newcastle, the Heineken-owned beer brand, which enlisted indie actress Anna Kendrick for a 2-minute tour de force in 2014. The entire ad featured Kendrick complaining about the fact that Newcastle lacked the money for a Super Bowl ad. (Kendrick said the words, but they were bleeped out.) Venting further, Kendrick admitted that she didn’t even drink the beer.

The ad was a hit, racking up more than 3 million views on YouTube before the big game. It also proved to be a tough act to follow. Newcastle followed up in 2015 with a clever ad that purported to enter Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest, but was still relentlessly pushing Newcastle. The brand also ran a regional spot during the big game that featured some 36 other brands all splitting the cost. 

This year, Newscastle is sitting out the game. "We’d like to think that just like British television, we stuck around for two good seasons and ended on top before we ran out of plotline," says Nick Maschmeyer, Senior Strategist, Droga5. "But the truth of the matter is that now that Newcastle raised brand awareness and engaged so many people who the love the brand, it’s getting back to the basics." 

It may also be that, like Oreo’s brilliant Super Bowl tweet in 2013, the Newcastle ad is impossible to top. "With all of the other ambush efforts that followed suit, it’s fair to ask if this concept has now become the Macarena of advertising," says Blaine Lifton, CEO of Hyperbolous. "In other words, has it run its course?" 

Exploiting local markets
A variation on this approach is Old Milwaukee, another journeyman beer brand, this time owned by Pabst. As luck would have it, Will Ferrell is a big fan of Old Milwaukee and volunteered to make ads for the brand in 2011. The ads only ran in North Platte, Nebraska. Of course, in the age of YouTube, the local-market placement didn’t matter as much since Ferrell fans could freely seek it out online. 

While Old Milwaukee had the dumb luck of having an A-list star as a fan, tech publication The Verge showed how much mileage one could get out of a $700 buy as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others reported on the site’s "Super Bowl buy." While a rep for The Verge declined to say at first, eventually it was revealed that the ad was only running in one market – Helena, Montana.

Ambush marketing: Your financial duty?
While some consumers might cheer an underdog brand that’s trying to garner some Super Bowl buzz, studies show that consumers overall are dismissive of the practice of ambush marketing. The catch is that most consumers usually have no idea who is an official sponsor and who isn’t.

A 2012 study found that two thirds of people who had run the ING New York Marathon in 2005 and 2008 had a lower opinion of brands that associated themselves with the event but weren’t actual sponsors. Some 55 percent also agreed that ambush marketing was unethical. The study also found however, that spectators participants are often unaware of who is a legitimate sponsor and who is not. 

McKelvey says there’s little risk for companies that take part in ambush marketing. In fact, he thinks it is incumbent on brands to exercise their right to do so. "I bet you couldn’t find one person in 100 who even knows what ambush marketing is," he says. McKelvey says even the term is somewhat loaded, reflecting the desire of leagues like the NFL, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee to protect their franchise and their sponsors. Another term McKelvey likes is "parallel marketing." 

Nothing illegal is going on, he says. "This is just good old American competition. Public companies have obligations to their stakeholders. They’re not serving their stakeholders if they decide they’re not going to do football-themed promotions around the biggest sporting event in America because their competitor happens to have bought official sponsorship rights." 

Ethics aside, McKelvey says brands have little to lose by ambushing the big game: "No consumer is going to think less of you for ambush marketing." 

On the other hand, your stakeholders might. Maschmeyer says that money, not ethics is what holds most brands back from ambushing the big game. The cost of all media spikes around the Super Bowl, he says, so brands with low budgets really can’t compete.

"There was probably a time in the early days of social and digital media when a challenger brand could interrupt the conversation of the perennial big brands through smart digital tactics," he says, "but today the price tag is a lot steeper and there’s still really no guarantee that anyone will see or care about it."


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