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Originally published Friday, February 3, 2012 at 10:27 PM

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Super Bowl commercials breaking early

Advertisers have started revealing their spots long before the game, generating excitement through social media.

The New York Times

Super Bowl commercials from YouTube

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What a terribly misguided analogy by the Lexus rep. Seeing the ads early is not akin to... MORE
agreed that it's ritual for these commercials to be aired first during the superbowl... MORE

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Super Bowl Sunday long has been the biggest day of the year for advertising, as more than 100 million Americans watch television's most expensive and daring commercials. Unlike years past, though, one thing will be mostly missing this year: surprise.

That is because many of the premier ads for Super Bowl XLVI already have turned up on Facebook, YouTube and the sponsors' websites, some for weeks.

Volkswagen, for example, had one of last year's favorite commercials, featuring a boy dressed as Darth Vader. The company released a teaser for the sequel — about a slimmed-down dog, with a "Star Wars" twist at the end — on Jan. 18 on YouTube, where it already has been viewed more than 11.2 million times. An extended version of the sequel was uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday; by Friday afternoon, it had been seen more than 2.2 million times.

The increase in pre-released commercials — Super Bowl ad creep — is another indication of how marketing has changed in the social-network era. Once, companies tried to build anticipation by holding back the ads, which this year cost sponsors an average of $3.5 million for each 30 seconds. Now, they try to generate excitement by making it easier for consumers to see, share and discuss the ads — essentially moving the water-cooler conversation that takes place after the game to beforehand.

"This is the first Super Bowl where social media has been an integral part of marketers' plans," said Adam Schwartz, associate director and sports specialist at Horizon Media in New York, which buys time on television shows, because they realize "you can get more bang for your buck."

The arrival of Super Bowl commercials before the game reflects a broader media trend of sharing content with consumers ahead of time. Magazines release big articles early to draw more readers to newsstands, and networks are offering opportunities to watch online the first episodes of series such as NBC's "Smash," sometimes weeks before the shows make their television debuts.

By some estimates, almost half the 50-plus commercials scheduled to appear in the Super Bowl are already online in one form or another. Many of those sneak peeks are for car ads, seeking to stand out amid the clutter in the automotive category. Spots for 11 automotive brands will appear in the game, along with ads for related products such as Bridgestone tires.

"So many people are launching commercials early to feed the beast," said Don Springer, founder and chief executive at Collective Intellect in Boulder, Colo., which analyzes conversations in social media.

The first full Super Bowl XLVI spot to be shared early, for the Chevrolet Camaro, went online Jan. 19 — 17 days before the game. Kia Motors even began showing its entire Super Bowl spot Thursday in more than 18,000 movie theaters.

In addition to the actual ads, there are teaser videos, preview clips and, in some cases, extended versions with more content that sponsors hope will provide fodder for pregame conversations and media coverage, including articles like this.

"This is the one time of the year people like to talk about advertising," said Greg Artzt, founder and chief strategic officer at the Charlotte, N.C., office of General Sentiment, another company that analyzes interactions in social media. "There's millions of dollars of unpaid exposure being gained, before the ads are aired."

In some instances, sponsors are choreographing the prelude to the Super Bowl as carefully as a halftime show. American Honda Motor sought to build interest in its coming commercial for the Honda CR-V, which features Matthew Broderick in an homage to his 1986 movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," by uploading to YouTube on Jan. 26 a mysterious 10-second teaser.

An extended version of the commercial then joined the teaser on YouTube. The mega-version, which had been watched more than 10.3 million times as of Friday afternoon, runs 2 minutes, 25 seconds — almost 2 ½ times as long as the 60-second commercial to be shown during the Super Bowl.

Concerns have been raised that, by being so forthcoming before the game, advertisers may dampen enthusiasm for watching commercials during the game. As Collective Intellect gathered data for its pregame report, called the CNBC/Collective Intellect Super Sunday Ad Tracker, a small number of people "said they are almost a little disappointed they've seen the ads early," said Jennifer Roberts, marketing manager.

That does not worry sponsors such as Brian Smith, vice president for marketing at the Lexus division of Toyota Motor Sales USA. Lexus, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser, is offering computer users a chance to watch its full commercial, for the 2013 GS sport sedan, on Facebook and YouTube.

Smith likened Super Bowl Sunday to Christmas Day. As much fun as it would be to come downstairs and find presents without knowing it was Dec. 25, he said, it is "a lot more fun when you've gone through the buildup, the anticipation, when you know what's coming."

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