This month, Anheuser-Busch InBev hosted a dozen or so reporters at its airy New York office to discuss its advertising plans for the Super Bowl.
Company-branded folders labeled "Media Briefing" were distributed. A news release detailed the four beer labels that would be featured in commercials during the game, on Feb. 5, with instructions to keep the information under wraps until the next morning. Also included: a brochure outlining "fun facts" for each brand — Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Budweiser and Busch — and a business card with a website and email address for "all of your A-B Super Bowl needs."
Absent from the event, which included an hourlong presentation from the company's United States marketing head: the commercials themselves. Three of the four, the company said, were slated for online release in the lead-up to the big game.
The briefing illustrates the effort companies put forth each year to market the most expensive commercial space on TV. The average cost of a 30-second ad for the Super Bowl crept up to $5 million this year, according to ad buyers, from an estimated $4.8 million last year. Brands, eager to get their money's worth, may spend anywhere from 25 percent of that cost to the same amount on marketing tied to the ads themselves, said Mary Scott, a president at UEG, a sports and entertainment marketing agency.
"Even though the spots have incredible viewership — as much as the game itself — you never know," Ms. Scott said, adding that she recommends clients spend an amount equal to at least 25 percent of the cost on promotions related to their Super Bowl ad. "There's become more of a game around the game in terms of ensuring that really pays off in a big way."
The willingness of companies to pay record prices for Super Bowl ads while simultaneously spending more to promote them shows how coveted consumer attention has become in the age of smartphones and social media. It can also be a mind-bending thought experiment, given that the ads are attempts to sell consumers on a product or brand.
As recently as 2011, it was relatively novel for companies like Volkswagen to share teasers and full versions of their ads before the Super Bowl. Now, the main question for companies seems to be how early to start. More brands are choosing a "drumbeat" approach over one big moment, said Tara Walpert Levy, the vice president of agency and media solutions at YouTube, which has seen more companies prerelease and promote Super Bowl ads over the past few years. (YouTube is celebrating the 10th year of its AdBlitz competition, which encourages viewers to vote for their favorite Super Bowl ads, almost all of which are released and seen widely before the game.)
Social media is also far more developed as an industry than it was several years ago, making it harder for agencies to maneuver their way into online buzz without buying a spot, as Old Spice did in 2010. The platforms "have caught on and have monetized all the extensions around the Super Bowl," said Lawrence Teherani-Ami, the media director for North America at the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy.
"Whether it's Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube, they all have different types of buys you can make," he said. "The Super Bowl has created a cottage industry for other media companies to take advantage of it as well."
Starting in January, public relations firms and executives at large brands offered the news media previews or exclusive peeks at their commercials, as long as they agreed not to publish the ads or information about them until a specific time — say, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. for Mercedes-Benz, or Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. for Buick. Often, the ads were just one part of a broader brand campaign, bolstered by celebrities or new products, with executives ready for interviews.
Bud Light, for example, announced a new tagline, "Famous Among Friends," as part of its event this month. Lexus issued a news release about its Super Bowl ad on Jan. 23, which features music from Sia, noting that it would be the brand's "first official use" of a new global tagline, "Experience Amazing."
The hope is that articles about the ads will drive a flurry of "earned media," industry parlance for morning show segments, articles, blog posts and social media chatter. Often, companies will supplement that with "paid media," like promotions on YouTube or Twitter, search keywords or display ads.
Buick waited until the game last year to debut its first Super Bowl ad. This year, the company is releasing the ad early, and spending twice as much as it did last year on social media promotions. Buick would share information about the commercial only if outlets agreed to keep it private until the company posted the ad online. In exchange for agreeing to its terms, Buick said it could send over a GIF showing how it planned to use Instagram Stories during the game.
Releasing the ad early "gives us a longer time span to engage consumers, and I believe it's a better return on our investment," said Molly Peck, Buick's director of marketing, adding that the company wanted to match the interest it generated last year for being a first-time advertiser. The Super Bowl is still a rare opportunity for companies to reach more than 100 million viewers on a day that "people really want to see the ads, they're not skipping over them, they're watching them in real time and engaged," she said.
Susan Credle, the global chief creative officer of FCB, noted that marketers walk a fine line as they balance the demand for "extras" with the ad itself. "There are very few places where we experience things together for the first time, and I think we underestimate the power of that," she said, referring to the Super Bowl's huge audience.
Roughly 80 national commercial slots were available for purchase this year. The average price of a 30-second in-game Super Bowl ad was $2.4 million in 2007, according to figures from Kantar Media that were not adjusted for inflation. The firm estimated that in-game advertising generated $2.6 billion in sales to networks between 2007 and 2016.
"As advertisers more and more look to tell their narrative and tell content stories, this is a tremendous opportunity to do it, but like any story, you can't just tell it once," said Randy Freer, the chief operating officer of Fox Networks Group. "You have to get out and spread it around and elevate that."
Snickers is aiming to do that this year with the Super Bowl's first live commercial, which will star Adam Driver from the HBO series "Girls." The concept, which its public relations firm was pitching to news outlets as far back as December, will be accompanied by a 36-hour live stream, highlights posted to Facebook and behind-the-scenes footage from two social influencers. The extra effort will cost "several" hundred thousand dollars, the company said.
"It's more and more difficult for people to talk about the ad and see our ad and get noticed, so that's why we are taking an approach that is more about creating a platform." said Berta De Pablos-Barbier, vice president of marketing for Mars Chocolate. "Television advertising continues to be an important part, but on its own it's not enough anymore."