Restaurant brands are punting on expensive in-game commercials for Super Bowl XLVIII in favor of more cost-effective marketing strategies like pregame commercials or, increasingly, social-media campaigns before and during the big game.
Unlike last year, when Taco Bell and Subway ran in-game commercials  during the National Football League’s championship game, no restaurants have announced plans to advertise during the Super Bowl, which will be televised Feb. 2 on Fox. The game’s airtime reportedly sold out last December, and marketers reportedly paid as much as $4 million for a 30-second spot.
However, several restaurant brands, including KFC and Subway, have begun hinting at social media campaigns timed to coincide with the Super Bowl or the week leading up to the big game, and many chains with ties to the NFL are expected to advertise during the pregame show, as Papa John’s, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s have done for the past few years.
Maureen Morrison, the Chicago-based editor of Advertising Age who covers the quick-service industry, was not surprised that restaurants largely chose to stay on the sidelines during the Super Bowl this year in favor of pregame or social-media campaigns.
“That [in-game versus pregame] debate has been going on for a while, because it is getting so expensive to buy an in-game ad,” she said. “Last year, Subway and Taco Bell bought into the game at the last second, and when they did, their commercials were more branding-oriented.”
She added that brands that have partnered with the NFL or popular football players — particularly Papa John’s, the official sponsor of the league whose spokesman and franchisee, Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos , will start in his third Super Bowl this year — have been laying the groundwork for a big day on Super Bowl Sunday all season. A Super Bowl commercial is not likely to motivate people to leave where they are watching the game to grab a meal, so the expensive in-game slots are less attractive to restaurant marketers, she surmised.
“Chain restaurants probably figure that if they want to get people to buy their products, customers are probably already eating or would have ordered by the time the game has kicked off,” Morrison said. “A Super Bowl commercial is not going to get many immediate new customers that day, so brands can have success in pregame advertising and save money in the process.”
Passing on the big game
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Some chains take “pregame” to mean the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII, like Subway, the Milford, Ct.-based sandwich giant that had an in-game commercial run in 2013.
This year, Subway’s Super Bowl play will be a sponsorship of ESPN Radio for the week before Super Bowl Sunday, according to a report in MediaPost . Guests who appear on the shows “Mike & Mike” or “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” can enjoy the brand’s sandwiches in the green room before they go on air. Subway will once again partner with digital agency Giphy to leverage the firm’s PhotoBooth technology to turn footage of guests in the green room into animated GIFs popular for sharing on Twitter and Tumblr.
Another quick-service chain, KFC, decided to produce a pregame commercial for the Super Bowl, but only as a result of a successful social media campaign. A video promoting KFC’s new hash tag, “#HowDoYouKFC,” starring motocross star Bryce Hudson executing a backflip on his motorcycle while eating a piece of Extra Crispy Boneless out of a KFC Go Cup received nearly 1 million views on YouTube. The brand quickly decided to turn that viral video into a 30-second prime-time commercial.
KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said in an email to Nation’s Restaurant News that, even though the Louisville, Ky.-based chain would not purchase an in-game spot for its commercial, Super Bowl Sunday nonetheless presented a major opportunity for the brand’s marketing plans.
“KFC chose to kick off our #HowDoYouKFC campaign on one of the biggest TV-watching days of the year,” he said. “The decision to include a 30-second version of ‘Motocross’ was driven by the way KFC fans reacted to the video…. When our fans speak, we listen.”
KFC will air four commercials during Fox’s pregame show, including the Bryce Hudson ad airing in the hour before kickoff.
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Last year’s Super Bowl was a pivotal moment for social-media marketing, when the Oreo brand caused a viral sensation with its tweet reading, “You can still dunk in the dark,” after the lights in the stadium suddenly went out.
The spontaneity of that event and Oreo’s tweet had a lot to do with the attention the strategy of “real-time social media” has received since the last Super Bowl, Ad Age’s Morrison said. While she conceded that a social-heavy marketing strategy likely would serve restaurants well this year, she cautioned that it would be just as difficult to be the social media standout as it would to have what is considered the best Super Bowl commercial.
“People talked about wanting to capitalize on the Oreo thing all year long, and a lot of marketers are hoping to get the same success while really spending very little or no money whatsoever,” she said. “It seems reasonable to me that these companies would want to go that route, but at this point, how would you stand out with everybody trying to do the same thing?”
For KFC, which built its marketing campaign for Super Bowl Sunday and beyond around a the #HowDoYouKFC hash tag, the “ultimate goal in social is to give fans a platform to speak for the brand in ways we never could,” Maynard said.
“Our metric of success is primarily hash tag impressions, followed by content shares for those who are experiencing our digital content for the first time,” he said. “Bryce’s video is the perfect example of how collaborating with KFC on social can lead to a major platform for content creators.”
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] .
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