What does it take to get a commercial rejected from the Super Bowl? It all starts with a clever press release.
If you are an internet-reading human, chances are you’ve come across numerous articles offering a look at would-be Super Bowl ads that were “too racy” or “too shocking” for the shrinking violets at Fox, NBC or CBS. So-called banned Super Bowl ads have become a regular media fixture in the runup to the big game, and this year is no different: PETA, the always-theatrical animal rights group, splashed the web this week with a supposed spot called “Last Longer,” which claims men can improve their sexual prowess by going vegan.
The graphic ad leaves little up to the imagination, and media outlets have pounced on the chance to offer readers a look at an ad that was too hot for the Super Bowl. But the reality is the ad was never destined to hit the airwaves during the big game.
“There's no way the company ever would have expected that to be approved for the Super Bowl,” said Jennifer Edson Escalas, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. “Clearly, they’re trying to get attention.”
PETA, which is no stranger to jacking the news cycle, walked a rhetorical tightrope to get the clip into the press, saying in a release its ad left CBS executives "speechless." When asked to clarify, a rep for the organization, which hasn't bought any Super Bowl airtime, said PETA sent CBS a copy of the ad last fall, which the broadcaster ignored.
Like “leaking,” a marketing tactic that gave some Super Bowl ads a major boost when it started in 2010, sharing a “banned” ad became a common tactic several years ago. Brands ranging from Bud Light to Sodastream have put out “banned” versions of their ads ahead of the game, with an eye toward getting people to talk about them ahead of the Super Bowl.
It works because the Super Bowl is the only time of the year when regular Americans actually pay attention during the commercial breaks, and marketers have seized on the opportunity to tap that excitement. And media outlets, which are not above doing something cynical to get some clicks, are more than happy to post, package and reuse the clips.
The tactic’s so effective that broadcasters use it to drive awareness of their own events, as this BBC spot promoting the Six Nations rugby tournament attests:
No matter what they’re ostensibly plugging, the spots, which are typically built around titillation or shock tactics, aren’t designed to do anything but get their names on consumers’ tongues. And because view and share counts offer a brand an easy look at just how well (or how poorly) a spot did, it’s easy for them to decide if the shock tactics are worth their time.
“If you get enough people watching it, the payoff is pretty easy to measure,” Escalas said.
Thankfully, that cuts both ways. While social attention and sharing might help a spot grab tens, or even hundreds of thousands of views, it's never going to measure up to something that goes into more than 110 million American homes.
"Ultimately, you can’t beat being in the telecast," said Brent Smart, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi NY. "There’s a reason it costs what it costs."