As mass marketing events go, Super Bowl XLII may have been one of the biggest in history, second only to the series finale of "M*A*S*H." (The Nielsen numbers are still coming in). And while millions of people tuned in for the game and countless more watched just for the ads, something was missing -- digital integration.
Where's the web?
Remember the late '90s when every ad ended with a dotcom? Remember the stream of ads for companies you had never heard of? Remember the novelty of major brands wagering multimillion-dollar ad buys on unproven amateurs in the form of user-generated content?
If you were expecting the next-generation of new media ads on the 2008 edition of Super Bowl Sunday, you were likely disappointed.
"It was like we went backwards this year," says Sean Cheyney, VP of marketing and business development at AccuQuote. "It's like we're moving back into silos. I was surprised that companies didn't do more integration. The web was an afterthought for most of the ads."
According to Cheyney, a number of brands that have been keen to experiment in digital simply omitted the web altogether. As an example, Cheyney points to Budweiser, a company that has gone as far as to launch its own branded entertainment channel on the web in the form of Bud.TV. While that venture may have been a flop, Cheyney expressed dismay that many of the brewer's TV spots didn't even have the requisite URL at the end of the ad.
Witness a Budweiser ad featuring a struggling Clydesdale and a Dalmatian as his coach. Set to the theme of "Rocky," the ad brought in the laughs but left viewers without a digital lifeline. For Cheyney, that was a huge missed opportunity. But according to data from AOL's Annual Super Sunday Ad Poll, that ad was America's favorite 30-second spot, meaning that a determined horse, a gritty dog and a little humor generated digital buzz for Budweiser even without a direct push to the web.
The exception to the rule
T.J. Kelly of ActiveAthlete also noticed a diminished web presence but pointed out that brands with a digital tie-in did have some success, despite being in the minority.
"I tracked 63 spots while I was watching the game," Kelly explains. "Thirty-seven had URLs, but they were usually in very small print, and almost always at the end of the game."
For Kelly, brands like SalesGenie and GoDaddy did a good job of leveraging their TV spots to drive consumers into a continued digital experience. But as Kelly points out, both brands are online companies, meaning that they almost had to include the web in the spot.
Whether either ad (both of which skirted some controversy in the form of allusions to racial stereotypes for SalesGenie and inappropriate content for GoDaddy) delivered a good web experience for consumers appears to be debatable.
While Kelly says he thought SalesGenie did a good job of making an offer to its customers (100 free sales leads), marketing consultant Julie Roehm says she found the site lacking.
"Salesgenie had a horrible website," says Roehm, who reports watching the game with her laptop on hand. "I didn't find it terribly effective."
Tide, one of the few ads that did ask users to go to a micro site, also left Roehm wanting more. While the TV spot drew in users with a talking stain, the site was little more than a collection point for user data and a quick promotion.
Unlike Roehm, Adam Broitman, director of emerging and creative strategy at Morpheus Media, says he couldn't even see what Tide had to offer online.
Broitman, who also watched the game with a laptop while using Twitter to chat with friends about the ads in real-time, says many of the people he connected with had trouble loading Tide's MyTalkingStain.com website.
But a lackluster web experience and an overburdened micro site might not have been Tide's only problem, according to Centro CEO Sean Riegsecker, who says the hilarious creative may have been wasted because people were unable to remember where to go after the game.
While it's not clear why many brands opted to deploy a different integration strategy -- one that simply left users on their own in the digital space -- the idea that integration wasn't critical seems to have been the big theme for this year's ads, at least from an interactive perspective.
Like other interactive professionals, Joanna Abel, director of marketing at Rapt, says she didn't see much of an integration play. Abel, who cited Pepsi's Justin Timberlake spot as the best example of a brand extending its experience into the digital space, says a convergence of marketing channels may have been the reason so few advertisers put the spotlight on the web.
"It could be that there's such a blending of digital with traditional media right now that advertisers don't think they need to push people online," Abel says.
But that specific direction may also be a thing of the past, according to Robin Seidner, director of marketing at Collective Intellect.
"I think people are tired of being told what to do," Seidner says. "If this year's Super Bowl ads tell us anything, it's that the digital landscape is changing faster than anyone realizes."
Yes, but search still matters, right?
While marketers may be hard-pressed to explain to brands the fast-changing digital landscape, some things haven't changed at all, according to Abel, who picked up on Riegsecker's criticism of the Tide commercial.
"I thought it was a funny ad for Tide, but when I searched for 'Tide' and 'talking stain' neither the commercial nor the micro site came up near the top of the results," Abel says. "It just goes to show you how important it is to integrate search even if you aren't directing people to a specific online destination."
But not all ads missed the search-based integration play, according to John Grudnowski, director of modern media at space150.
"To be honest, I was surprised by the percentage of ads that didn't include a unique website," Grudnowski says. "But that being said, the tie-in through online video was huge."
According to Grudnowski, ads like those from Cars.com, which featured characters that car buyers could turn loose on unscrupulous auto dealers, will ultimately prove successful because the creatives will take on a life of their own on the web. But Grudnowski does admit that he was surprised that brands like Cars.com only offered videos for users to watch on their website, rather than a more immersive experience.
But cutting-edge, immersive online experiences weren't the focus for this year's ads, Grudnowski says, adding that most brands returned to traditional spots.
With the continued growth in the digital space, it's hard to see why the year's No. 1 advertising event would opt for a traditional approach.
For Cheyney, the answer could be as simple as internal politics within agencies that have done a poor job of breaking down their silos. But Broitman thinks the reason for a cautious approach from brands this year has more to do with reactions from years past.
"Look at what happened with UGC," Broitman says. "Only Doritos used UGC, and they did it as a kind of a hybrid (Doritos ran a spot with a singer who won its MySpace contest). I think some brands feel like they went too far in the past, and this year it was about being safe. Maybe next year we'll see something in the middle."
According to Seidner, the fast pace of change today has left many brands and agencies in the lurch, trying desperately to figure out what will take off without a firm understanding of an ever-changing media environment.
In such a complex media landscape, the solution for many brands may have been as simple as to put out what they believed to be their most engaging, compelling creative spots, hoping that users would take the ball from there.
For Grudnowski, the uncertainty of today's media seems to have left marketers with two options: carefully crafted, fully integrated campaigns that direct users through a series of online experiences, or a more amorphous reliance on virally geared creatives that rely on consumers to further disseminate the message through the digital space.
In the days and weeks that follow, a slew of measurement firms will come out with statistics identifying which Super Bowl spots delivered in what has become a multimillion-dollar, 30-second buy. While it may be easy to apply a subjective analysis of what made for a "good commercial," and easier still to identify winners and losers based on metrics like total views and buzz through the blogosphere, one question marketers won't easily be able to answer is whether a hands-on, integrated strategy is preferential to a less directed approach.
That question -- the nuts and bolts of how best to integrate between platforms -- will likely be an open one for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, we invite our readers to offer their insights in the form of comments below.
Michael Estrin is associate editor at iMediaConnection. Read full bio.