For advertisers, the Super Bowl is still the biggest game of the year. But in today's marketplace, the buzz isn't surrounding the ads during the game, it's the advertisers opting to sit on the bench instead that have programmers shivering on the sidelines.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Pepsi will not advertise during the game.
"That was a real problem for the Super Bowl because they are one of the biggest advertisers," says Suzanne Vranica, advertising columnist for the Wall Street Journal. "The economy is wreaking havoc with a couple companies. And you've got a couple companies, big companies like FedEx and GM, who are long-time Super Bowl fanatics, that have pulled out because of the economy."
Instead of paying an estimated $2.5 million to $2.7 million per Super Bowl commercial, big brands are using social networking to connect with consumers -- hoping to click in a more personal way.
"Social networking is the newest thing for marketers," says Vranica. "You've got 60 ads fighting for attention, so if you use social networking as a marketer and drum up some excitement, you'll have people specifically watching out for your commercial that night."
Instead of buying pricey ad time, Pepsi is launching a reported $20 million digital campaign to support charity projects initiated by consumers. Not to be outdone, Pepsi rival Coca-Cola, which is running two Super Bowl commercials, will partner with Facebook to incorporate charity into their message.
"Every company out there has some kind of cause," says Vranica.
In addition to philanthropy, companies like Doritos and CareerBuilder.com are crowd sourcing their ads through social networking. All of this year's Super Bowl advertisers have Twitter pages, and Facebook users were tapped to create Vitamin Water's latest flavor and ad campaign.
Ads are beginning to get plastered everywhere.
"Ad clutter is a big problem, so advertisers are bending over backwards to find the most bizarre places to advertise," says Vranica.
Elevators, cars, garages, crosswalks and even breakfasts like Eggo waffles are getting branded.
Advertisers also are producing viral videos that seem to be captured by amateur photographers but surreptitiously advertise a product. RayBan, for example, released a video of a tattoo lover who appears to get a permanent pair of sunglasses tattooed on his face.
Advertisers Go High-Tech to Reach Audiences
Trading football for futuristic, companies are trying 3-D advertising, too. This month, Visa was the first company ever to advertise in an outdoor space using 3D.
"3D ads are the next gimmick," says Vranica. "You've got a lot of technology out there, and advertisers realize the space they play in is very crowded, so they're looking for technology to make something new. So if you make it in 3D, how could you go wrong?"
Advertisers also are stretching the limits of technology with touch screens, holograms, and "augmented reality."
"Interactive advertising is a big draw for marketers because it proves that people are engaging with your ad rather than sitting back," says Vranica.
A fitness center ad at a bus stop in the Netherlands, for example, weighs people as they sit down. Sharpie markers encourages consumers to write on a virtual "eCast" on low-hanging electronic billboards, and the Mini Cabrio car's "augmented reality" campaign allows users to hold up a Mini Cabrio convertible magazine ad to a webcam and watch as the computer screen displays a 3-D model of the car.
As for what everyone will be watching by next year's Super Bowl, commercials could be similar to the high-tech personalized ads from Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie "Minority Report." "Smart signs" from tech companies like Quividi and TruMedia are in test phase now and could scan consumers as they walk by, telling advertisers the age, height, even clothing size of potential customers.
Not every company is pinching pennies during the Super Bowl. Even at nearly $3 million for a 30 second spot, the game is sold out with commercials from big brands like Anheuser-Busch and Unilever, and lesser known companies like HoweAway.com and Boost Mobile, which both are making their Super Bowl ad debuts.
"There is no way in today's universe with such audience fragmentation that you can reach 90 million people with one ad," says Vranica. "That's why you see companies that you've never heard of advertising in the Super Bowl. So $3 million for 30 seconds is actually a bargain because they could never reach that kind of audience."