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It's almost game time. Patriots vs. Giants. New York vs. New England. An undefeated season and a claim to the best team in football history hang in the balance.
Yet looking at the towering ad buzz swirling around the Super Bowl, you can't help but feel like the countdown to kickoff is something of a smokescreen. For some, the real countdown anticipates the first break in the game, when the excitement begins in earnest and they finally get to see the hype that all the hype's truly about: the commercials.
Last year, advertisers spent more than $161.8 million plugging their brands on TV, to a tune of $2.39 million for a 30-second spot, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the research firm's advertising tracker. This year, 30 seconds of fame will run you $2.7 million.
That nearly one-third of the country's population will be watching is staggering enough. A recent comScore study adds an exclamation point to the advertising opportunity: Twenty-six percent of people who said they planned to watch the game said the ads were their favorite part.
The industries that bought up the most airtime last year were beer, automotive and soft drinks. Sounds like a good match for football fans. By company, the biggest spenders were Budweiser, Coca-Cola and General Motors, according to Nielsen.
Those three industries are again heavily represented in this year's advertising lineup, but there's no shortage of tech companies who've also ponied up to broadcast their message to the masses.
Toshiba bought three spots -- one pre-game, one in-game and one post-game -- making what some might see as a last stand in the format wars.
In addition to its LCD TVs, Toshiba is promoting several movie titles released in the HD DVD format, which, after some disappointing sales and the news that Warner Bros. would exclusively support Blu-Ray, seems to have all the momentum of a sinking ship.
Then there's Amazon, which is not slated for a TV spot of its own, but will see plenty of exposure through its partnership with Pepsi Co.
For this year's digital music giveaway, the soft drink giant has snubbed Apple in favor of Amazon. In Pepsi's "Magnetic Attraction spot," Justin Timberlake will kick off the biggest promotion in the soft drink company's history, offering $1 billion in prizes, including free downloads from the Amazon MP3 store.
Through partnerships with all four major record labels, Amazon has amassed a huge catalog of music free from digital rights management (DRM) usage restrictions. (Of the big four, only EMI has licensed its DRM-free catalog to Apple's iTunes store.) Four years ago, Pepsi ran a similar download giveaway, only with the then-fledgling iTunes as a partner.
Cars.com, a Super Bowl newcomer, is stepping into the fray with a spot promoting "Car Shopping Confidence." The Super Bowl ad is the beginning of a $200 million campaign -- the largest ever for Cars.com -- to rebrand itself as the essential online resource for car buyers.
Among the other tech companies splurging for Super Bowl exposure are Dell, eTrade, Garmin and Careerbuilder.com, according to Advertising Age.
GoDaddy.com does it again
Of course, when it comes to tech companies and the Super Bowl, the list would not be complete without GoDaddy.com. The domain name registry grabbed its place in Super Bowl advertising lore in 2005 with the spot "Wardrobe Malfunction," a play on Janet Jackson's halftime mishap at the previous year's Super Bowl.
The spot featured GoDaddy spokesmodel Nikki Cappelli (played by model Candice Michelle) appearing at the "Broadcast Censorship Hearings," before a crusty old committee prescreening advertisers before the big game.
Alas, one of the spaghetti straps on Cappelli's tank top had come undone. Hilarity ensued as she demonstrated her aerobic routine and dance steps to the indignant codgers presiding over the hearings.
The Standards and Practices group at Fox didn't find it so funny.
GoDaddy had purchased two time slots for the spot, but the network pulled the ad after its first airing. So GoDaddy not only got to show its ad to the world -- pushing the envelope as titillated viewers gasped, "Can they do that?" -- but then it got to scramble up to the moral high ground, crying "censorship!"
Next page: GoDaddy's latest effort to tweak the censors
Fast forward to 2008, and GoDaddy's Super Bowl ad blitz is still flirting with the boundaries of acceptable content. The company said it took 11 tries to get its ad past Standards and Practices at Fox Broadcasting this year. The accepted version, titled, cleverly, "Spot On," plays up the censorship angle to the hilt.
Since Fox wouldn't air the "funniest commercial we've ever made," GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons said he switched gears.
The ad that Fox cleared is, according to GoDaddy, a promotion for the original ad, "Exposure" -- featuring Indy race car driver Danica Patrick in what one can only imagine are varying stages of undress. That ad, the spot will say, can be seen on GoDaddy's Web site immediately after the TV spot airs.
So it's an ad advertising an ad.
Fox did not make an executive available for comment, but a source at the company familiar with the matter said "there was no way in hell" that the original "Exposure" ad would ever air, and GoDaddy knew it.
The implication was that it was a calculated publicity stunt, and that GoDaddy seized on the opportunity to play the censorship card again.
The latest twist is that a "Viewer Discretion Advised" fly-in appears at the end of the current iteration of Spot On, meant to warn viewers about the racy content they are being directed toward.
What fun. Of course, the promotional opportunities don't begin and end with $2.7 million television spots. Scores of smaller tech companies and startups, like Jacked.com, are framing marketing campaigns around the Super Bowl.
In Jacked's case, that campaign could mean a $100,000 payday for some sports fan with the right mix of luck and neuroticism. Fans register at the site, then fill out their picks for the Super Bowl in 20 categories, ranging from who's going to win the opening coin toss, get the first sack and, oh yes, the outcome of the game itself. Answer all 20 right, and pocket a hundred grand.
It's a come-on, to be sure, but the sweepstakes is already driving repeat traffic, said Bryan Biniak, CEO of Jacked.
"More than 20 percent of people who've signed up have already returned to the site," Biniak told InternetNews.com.
That's a big jump from Jacked's previous promotions, which offered prizes along the order of $500 or $1,000. But the biggest single-day media blitz on the sports calendar is worth it. Biniak won't tip his hand about what the company has planned for March Madness, except to say that it will be huge.
Jacked operates a Web-based publishing platform that syncs up with live television, so fans watching Sunday's game can log on to check real-time stats, check out photos from Jacked's partners like the Associated Press and Getty Images, and use the live chat feature to taunt or celebrate with their friends around the country -- depending on where their loyalties lie.
It's become an axiom to say that the Super Bowl is about more than just football -- most people didn't need comScore's survey to know that an awful lot of folks are more interested in the ads than the game. But the Super Bowl experience has also grown beyond the television set itself.
According to research from the Consumer Electronics Association, 18 percent of all Super Bowl viewers this year will be watching the game with an open laptop by their side, scanning sites like Jacked between plays.
An additional 12 percent of viewers plan to monitor stats on a PC set up in another room, and 13 percent will use their cell phones to the same end, according to Tim Herbert, senior director of market research at CEA.
That means that 43 percent of people who watch the Super Bowl this year will also be engaging with a second screen.
When it's all said and done, there will be another round of analysis from advertisers, their agencies and interactive gurus trying to pick out the winners and losers from the Super Bowl. Who spent too much? Which company's TV spot generated the most buzz? And so on.
One thing is certain -- in an era of media convergence, Super Bowl ads are increasing becoming an instrument to drive traffic to Web properties. Last year, sites that bought TV spots reported a 50 percent rise in traffic the next day, according to Nielsen.
Another certainty: Whether trying to breathe new life into an ailing business like Toshiba is with HD DVD, tweak the censors like GoDaddy or turn a corner with a startup like Jacked.com, Super Bowl advertising is a spectacle of the liveliest order.
If that's still not entertainment enough, try watching the game.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.