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How YouTube changed the Super Bowl commercial forever

Brands like SodaStream and GoDaddy.com are engineering their Super Bowl commercials to go viral nearly a week before the kickoff

Let's be clear: Even at the Super Bowl, a commercial is still a commercial, and even the most enjoyable ones exist primarily to sell you something. But over the decades, some commercials have overcome their humble origins and wormed their way into America's pop-cultural DNA. Take, for one obvious example, this 1979 Coca-Cola commercial starring Pittsburgh Steeler "Mean" Joe Greene:

Today, when you search for Greene on Google, you'll see his Coca-Cola commercial before his personal website or his entry in the Football Hall of Fame. The one-minute ad has left a larger cultural stamp than his 12 years playing in the NFL; the most-viewed version of the commercial on YouTube doesn't even spell his name right.

That Coca-Cola ad is one of the few Super Bowl commercials that have truly survived the test of time. You can probably name a few other Super Bowl commercials with a similar level of penetration: Apple's "1984," the Budweiser Clydesdales, and Jordan and Bird's shooting contest over a Big Mac. It's all the more impressive because those commercials had to prove more memorable than every commercial they aired against and survive in people's minds for years and years after they stopped airing on television.

But YouTube has changed everything. Super Bowl commercials used to be designed for an immediate punch; the goal was to be memorable enough to stand out from the dozens of other commercials trying to do the exact same thing. But there's a new strategy that has quietly started to creep in, which forgoes the scrum of Super Bowl Sunday in favor of building early buzz on the internet. But the tactic only works if media outlets are willing to play along, giving headlines and page space to commercials that prey on the curiosity and nostalgia of their readers.

The easiest way to exploit YouTube buzz is to bring in a beloved celebrity or franchise — preferably one that looms large in the mind of the 18-to-34-year-old demographic. You could try, say, riffing on Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

Or maybe The Matrix:

It's telling that both of those commercials are packaged in "extended editions" that can only be viewed online. Under this strategy — which has been adopted by an increasing number of companies every year — the Super Bowl is merely treated as the launch pad for an advertisement that can live on YouTube before, during, and after the game. Yes, those Super Bowl impressions are important — but an increasingly large piece of the pie comes from online views, which are buoyed by the surprisingly large number of websites that collect the commercials into articles and lists for their readers to devour. The trick to making this kind of ad go viral is to make viewers feel like they're missing something if they don't watch the extended or unrated version online — in other words, to make them willfully seek out an even longer advertisement.

I don't want to paint all these ads with the same brush. On the high end, you have the spots above, which have some genuinely funny moments for fans of the movies they're aping. On the low end, you have GoDaddy — an internet domain registrar that you probably shouldn't use — which has resorted to producing ads based on a lazy combination of sex appeal and shock value. For years, the company has attempted to lure viewers into watching "unrated" versions of its ads, because there's absolutely nowhere else a person could find soft-core pornography on the internet.

But GoDaddy, while by far the grossest example, isn't the only brand that has trotted out this trick. Over the past few days, you might have heard about an ad for SodaStream, featuring spokeswoman Scarlett Johansson, that was rejected by Fox for including the phrase "Sorry, Coke and Pepsi." (The ad will still air during the Super Bowl, but with the offending line removed.) "What are they afraid of?" asked SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum in an interview with USA Today. "Which advertiser in America doesn't mention a competitor? This is the kind of stuff that happens in China. I'm disappointed as an American."

Yes, we should all be disappointed and offended by this clear violation of the right to trash your competition on national television. Fortunately for America, the "uncensored" version is readily available on YouTube:

But maybe Birnbaum shouldn't be so surprised; this is, after all, the exact same thing that happened to SodaStream last year. The company's 2013 Super Bowl commercial — which included actors playing doofy parodies of Pepsi and Coke employees — was rejected by CBS for the same reason. The company posted the ad to its YouTube account as "the ad they wouldn't let you see during the Big Game 2013," where it amassed 5 million views from people wondering what all the fuss was about.

Birnbaum insists that he's genuinely surprised the Johansson ad was rejected. On the other hand, a conspiracy-minded person might speculate that the ad was deliberately engineered to include a line that would need to be cut in an attempt to wring some extra PR out of the 30-second spot.

But whichever side you believe, who could blame SodaStream if it was all planned? As a result of the "ban," SodaStream has received a week of free coverage from a wide variety of media outlets, to the tune of 3.5 million views for its "uncensored ad" — and a virtually identical version of the commercial will air during the Super Bowl anyway.

The trumped-up controversy around the advertisement is good for SodaStream, which scored boatloads of free press. It's good for the publications that decided to run with the story, because headlines containing phrases like "banned Scarlett Johansson" or "uncensored Scarlett Johansson" tend to get a lot of clicks. But it's bad for readers, who have essentially been tricked into watching a commercial.

Maybe you're fine with that. (After all, plenty of people say they only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials anyway.) But as long as you're going to watch a bunch of Super Bowl ads, you should know the strategy behind them — and that "extended" or "uncensored" or "banned" are just the latest in a long string of marketing gimmicks.

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