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What do you think of this year's Super Bowl ads?

What's that? You say the game is still days away, so you haven't seem them yet? No, silly, we're not talking about the ads that will air on Sunday's broadcast - though, truth is, if you'd wanted to see those, there are lots already available online. No, we're talking about the ads for those ads.

Nobody, it seems, simply buys a Super Bowl advertisement any more. The estimated $3-million (U.S.) outlay for 30 seconds of U.S. airtime is merely the linchpin of a broader campaign that can stretch for weeks before and weeks after the broadcast. There are crowd-sourcing campaigns that draft fans into contributing to the broadcast ads, Facebook efforts, and Twitter-based stunts to build bonds with consumers.

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And this year, more than ever before, marketers are treating their 30- or 60-second TV spots as something akin to feature films, using teaser trailers to instill a sense of anticipation for the ads' broadcast debuts.

Leading up to the game, Snickers posted a 14-second trailer of its TV spot with comedians Richard Lewis and Roseanne Barr, in which it touted the stars' names in movie-like credits, and concluded by directing viewers to watch the ad in the game's third quarter., the Internet registrar that has built a brand on the backs of curvaceous models and deliberately provocative ads, has been showing a pair of commercials on its website that promote the unveiling of a new spokesmodel during Sunday's broadcast.

Last week E*Trade (whose ad stayed in the headlines for months after last year's broadcast because of a $100-million defamation lawsuit launched by rehab veteran Lindsay Lohan) put up an entertaining series of clips of talking babies that supposedly "didn't make it past the censors" for this year's ad. Mercedes-Benz USA, in the Super Bowl broadcast for the first time in its history, posted a "behind the scenes" video of its commercial shoot exclusively on Facebook that users must "Like" before gaining access to it. (Thus sharing it with their Facebook friends.)

And this weekend's Saturday Night Live broadcast will include a 15-second commercial from Volkswagen that will tease one of the car maker's two spots to air during the big game - one of which, featuring a child in a Darth Vader costume facing off against a Passat, has already gone viral.

The most extensive trailers for this year's Super Bowl ads come from Audi USA, which is promoting its A8 through two spots set inside a "luxury prison." In the first, a clutch of aging preppies try to scare teenagers away from an old-fashioned luxury lifestyle, with dire talk of caviar addiction and an accident with a dessert known as Bananas Foster. The second spot features the mellow musician Kenny G. as the institution's "head of riot suppression" who calms angry prisoners with a few seconds of soporific saxophone noodling.

The trailers set up Audi's 60-second Super Bowl spot and feed back to the brand's Facebook page, where a virtual "Audi Estate Sale" of old-fashioned luxury items will go up for auction after the ad hits the air on Sunday.

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"Three years ago, people were looking at a Super Bowl campaign as something where you created a television spot, built that out across the single unit you place in the game, and that was it," explained Loren Angelo, the brand marketing manager of Audi USA. "The world has changed dramatically, but social media has really exploded the campaign opportunities with the Super Bowl."

When Audi teased its Super Bowl spot last year, it scored hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, which convinced the company to expand the strategy this year.

"Social media has allowed us via YouTube and Facebook - and we've expanded this year into Twitter - to be able to tell a little bit more of our story, to be able to go beyond the 60-second spot, and tell consumers what our brand is trying to communicate in the marketplace, what we stand for, and provide a lot more entertainment."

Audi is trying to initiate a conversation about the changing face of luxury, asking people in its Super Bowl spot to tweet using the hash tag #ProgressIs, which will automatically enter them in a contest whose grand prize is a trip to an Audi facility in Sonoma, Calif. Audi claims it will be the first time a Super Bowl ad has featured a hash tag.

Last Monday, Coca-Cola unveiled, a site that enables fans of the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers to send a virtual "cheers" to their teams. Each cheer will trigger a $1 donation by Coke to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Participants will receive a sneak peek to one of the two Coke spots airing Sunday; after the game, they'll receive both spots - which they can then pass along to their Facebook friends.

All the activity on social media has some wondering whether dropping $3-million for 30 seconds is a waste of money. The chief marketing officer of Ford Motor Co. suggested in a recent published interview that the auto maker wanted to engage customers where they lived, by which he meant: social media rather than broadcast TV.

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It may have been a way to justify staying out of the broadcast, which was reportedly sold out three months ago: Even businesses built on the power of social media recognize the occasional need for a smart broadcast buy. Groupon, the daily deal site which has grown from a mere idea to a globe-straddling business in less than 30 months, bought time in the game this week. And Pepsi, which famously kept its flagship brand out of the Super Bowl last year for the first time in almost a quarter of a century (in favour of launching its social media cause marketing initiative Pepsi Refresh), is back in the game this year.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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