It's got everything a commercial needs for maximum Internet success: a Star Wars theme, a healthy dose of humour, and – crucially – adorable puppies. But the teaser that Volkswagen AG released last week for its upcoming Super Bowl ad, titled " The Bark Side is not simply a prelude to what VW hopes will be the perfect television spot. It's also the perfect way for rival GM to siphon off some of its own buzz around the big game.
In the advertising galaxy, the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl are a period of war. And the fight is playing out on consumers' laptops and tablets, as well as their television screens.
On Monday, General Motors Co. took to Google to buy up some strange search terms – "barking dogs," for example – so that when people search for VW's bit of canine comedy, GM's ads will also appear.
"We did a promoted banner ad on their search terms … that got us significant clicks around our own ads," says Kevin Mayer, advertising director for GM's Chevrolet in the U.S. "The digital gamesmanship within this, is where I think the Super Bowl can be won and lost" for advertisers.
Marketers at car companies have a term for this: drafting. In a car race, it's using your competitor's slipstream to go faster with less effort. In auto advertising, it's taking advantage of another brand's buzz to get ahead in the race for influence around the biggest marketing event of the year: the Super Bowl.
It's not the first time GM has used the strategy. Last year it watched as VW's spot featuring an adorable child dressed as Darth Vader won enormous amounts of attention, and it bid on search terms around that ad as well.
Car companies are not the only ones to engage in this behaviour – many brands jockey for placement on Internet search pages. But it will be even more crucial this year, as auto makers are flocking back to the pricey real estate of the U.S. Super Bowl broadcast, and spending as much as $3.5-million (U.S.) for 30 seconds of airtime.
"People are full-throttle this year," says George Haynes, manager of digital and social media at Kia Motors America – pun intended. It's Kia's third year forking over millions for a Super Bowl TV slot, but Mr. Haynes says more of its rivals are buying ad time than in previous years. Kia's spotwill feature metal band Motley Crue, underwear model Adriana Lima, and other male-friendly figures.
But in case its chock-full TV spot doesn't generate the buzz Kia is hoping for, they too are prepared to take to the Web to steal another brand's thunder.
"We're definitely keeping our eyes open" for opportunities to capitalize on other companies' popular ads, Mr. Haynes says. "You'll see us do a lot within YouTube too … We want to make sure we're on the top of that list when someone's looking for our spot."
The folks at Volkswagen watched their competitors' "drafting" last year, and have been preparing their search strategy, buying key terms both leading up to the game and during the game that are related to their spot, says Brian Thomas, general manager of brand marketing for Volkswagen Group of America. Like many other companies, they plan to leak the commercial online beforehand (so far, the plan is to do it on Wednesday).
It's important to keep a hold on that buzz. While Google searches for "Darth Vader" are fairly common, they jumped about 250 per cent last year around the Super Bowl as people were drawn to the VW commercial.
GM is taking its online battle a step further this year: In addition to bidding on keywords, it has designed a number of online banner ads featuring actor Rainn Wilson of The Office, intended to draw eyes away from competitors' ads. It will place those displays alongside other companies' ads online, on YouTube and other sites. Mr. Wilson will point down at the rival ad on screen, mocking the theme and inviting the viewer to click through to see GM's ad.
The approach means GM has had to predict what competitors will be doing with their spots, and tailor its own Web ad to draw people away from them.
"You've got dogs, you've got babies. Vampires. Maybe zombies. We're doing a number of executions," Mr. Mayer says.
It's a more active way to pull in viewers, since bidding on keyword searches in Google only goes so far. But Google is still a large piece of the puzzle – especially in Canada, where it dominates even more of the search engine market than in the U.S., according to Neal Bouwmeester, manager of marketing communications for Nissan Canada Inc. That means search terms are a critical part of companies' ad strategies year-round.
"We have to make sure we're always buying all the terms related to Nissan," he says. "Every manufacturer wants to buy as much as they can of [words related to]the competitive set, and competitor's terms." Nissan, for instance, will bid on keywords associated with the Chevrolet Volt in order to place ads for its own electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf.
But around an event like the Super Bowl that draws so much attention, this year-round strategy becomes even more critical.
"You have to look at these massive world events … it's no longer contained. The energy that goes on outside of it … can have as much impact as the real show. That is what we're seeing in marketing," Google's Suzie Reider says.
Google has noted an increase this year in marketers attempting to go beyond the 30-second spot, noting that pre-game online campaigns are on the rise and more brands are buying Google Search ads alongside terms such as "Super Bowl commercial."
The anticipation is already building, and viewers are responding to the advance campaigns: in the U.S., searches on YouTube for that term are up 400 per cent from last Monday. Google, which owns YouTube, has seen a surge in pre-game interest in advertising over the past two years: Google searches for "Super Bowl commercial" from Canadian Internet users in 2011 were almost five times higher than in 2009.
"We had five ads last year, which were good ads. But we didn't get the buzz meter," GM's Mr. Mayer says.
"… But we had more collective views by a long shot because we really did a lot of work in the social space and the search space."
For Volkswagen, the battle online is part of making its investment in Super Bowl advertising pay off – and guarding against competitors who might find a weakness in VW's doggy Death Star, and exploit it. But Mr. Thomas says he recognizes why they do it – it's incredibly difficult to know which commercial in the big game will get the most attention, and advertisers must be prepared to ride that wave, whether or not their campaign is creating it. Search engine "drafting," then, is an efficient way to build a safety net under a Super Bowl campaign in case it flops.
"I can't say I'd be above doing it [to a competitor's campaign]" Mr. Thomas says. "All's fair in love and advertising."