Super Bowl ads build buzz through contests, controversy

The 48th Super Bowl is this Sunday, and once again the ads are getting at least as much buzz as the game.

Contests used to engage viewers beyond a 30-second on-air spot

Viewers were invited to submit their own videos expressing why they love the game. "Together We Make Football: Heidi" was one of the winners and will be shown during the Super Bowl. (

Advertisers buying air time during this year’s Super Bowl are paying an average of $4 million US for 30 seconds.

It’s highly unlikely that half a minute of attention is worth such an investment, so to make their commercial pay, marketers come up with ways to keep consumers engaged over several weeks or months. This year, many of the ads feature a common theme: contests. 

The Crash the Super Bowl Contest encourages fans to express their love for Doritos by spending months creating their own commercial. Millions more fans then vote for their favourite, with the winning spot running in the game and earning the creator $1 million.

In a similar move, software maker Intuit got thousands of small businesses to compete for a chance to win a Super Bowl commercial.

Running over several months, the first round of the contest drew one unexpected entrant that already had an ad ready to run. The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws was an early favourite in fan voting, but was controversially eliminated, resulting in weeks of free publicity for both it and Intuit.

Even the NFL is trying to stretch out viewer engagement, with its “Why do you love football?” contest. Fans were invited to spend months creating and submitting video answers to that question.

The Super Bowl broadcaster is also working to generate longer-term engagement, this time with its target audience of marketers. Fox’s Social Bowl contest awards a pre-game spot — valued at $850,000 — to the best commercial submitted by a marketer, who can also come up with the $150,000 entry free. With numbers like that, Fox only needs six submissions to turn a profit.

But there’s one ad that won’t be appearing in the game, even if it did win a contest. When the company submitted its commercial, Fox turned down both the ad and the corresponding cash.

In so many ways, advertising during the Super Bowl is one gigantic contest. Major advertisers compete for the attention of viewers. Fans enter contests to demonstrate their ongoing passion for brands. Marketers of controversial products work the odds to wrangle some high-profile airtime. And there’s even a football game.