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Super Bowl ads court controversy, get pre-game payoff

By Lisa Richwine and Sue Zeidler

(Reuters) - Provocative commercials for this year's Super Bowl broadcast have scored points before the opening kickoff, with eyeball-fetching teasers nearly as important to advertisers as the longer spots for the actual game.

Even the prospect of bad publicity has not tempered the promotions. Coca-Cola and Volkswagen entries generated complaints about racial stereotyping. A teaser for Mercedes-Benz showcasing a supermodel's body has already drawn the ire of some media watchdogs.

SodaStream scored a publicity touchdown with an ad that will not even appear during the game.

The debates have prompted millions of online views, thousands of social media comments and headlines questioning whether the pitches were offensive - all this before the full audience of 100 million viewers who will watch the San Francisco 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens have seen the ads.

That degree of attention can boost the value for ads beyond the $4 million-plus that agencies pay for some of the 30-second spots. Advance buzz gets people talking and, better yet from a marketer's perspective, searching for the promotions online.

"It's almost a game around the game," said Ammiel Kamon, executive vice president for Kontera, which tracks online brand and content marketing. He says the strategy has been honed in earlier campaigns.

The pre-game scandals have already benefited some companies - including one whose ad was not even accepted. SodaStream, which makes a home carbonation machine, turned its pre-game dustup with CBS into a marketing victory, said Ronald Goodstein, professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

SodaStream revealed that CBS rejected a Super Bowl commercial showing bottles of Coke and Pepsi, two of the game's biggest sponsors, combusting spontaneously as they were being delivered to a store at the moment someone used a SodaStream product.

The company issued a statement saying the ad was declined "because the two Big Soda brands are clearly identified," setting up the image of a David and Goliath battle, with the little guy fighting soda giants. SodaStream posted the ad on its website and said it will run on other TV networks.

"They're getting a lot more out of it than their money's worth," said Goodstein. "If you can create a controversy that enhances the brand to the target audiences, then go for it."

The bright lights of controversy don't always flatter the advertisers. Coke generated complaints and a CNN debate by pundits when Arab-American groups sharply criticized its ad as racist. The commercial shows an Arab pulling a camel through the desert as cowboys, Las Vegas show girls and a crowd of marauders like those in "Mad Max" race by to reach a gigantic bottle of Coke.

Warren David, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, complained that U.S. media portrayals of Arabs are too often stereotypical: "Why is it that Arabs are always shown as either oil-rich sheiks, terrorists, or belly dancers?"

The soft drink giant called the group on Thursday to apologize and held what it called a "productive conversation" but said it would still show the commercial.

The Super Bowl provides TV's largest audience, so advertisers must be at the top of their game. "A certain degree of risk-taking is probably necessary to stand out in the Super Bowl," said Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business.

Mercedes made a pitch for younger viewers by featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton in a car-wash teaser, the camera slowly panning her scantily-clad body.

The carmaker released the video online, and Upton tweeted it to her 697,000 followers, generating headlines and a rebuke by the Parents Television Council.

"We knew it would be polarizing," said Mercedes USA spokeswoman Donna Boland. "If it's not polarizing then people aren't going to talk about it."

Volkswagen's spot, featuring a white American man speaking in a Jamaican accent, drew some complaints but won endorsements from national officials, who said it was a celebration of reggae music and the country's hospitable culture.

Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer for Volkswagen of America, said pre-release testing yielded positive reactions from Jamaican viewers and others. Online polls show overwhelmingly people liked the ad, he said.

The carmaker didn't expect a controversy, he said, but admitted it "has created more interest. I think that's a good thing."

News coverage of the ad should help it stand out among the long passes and crushing tackles, said Claudia Caplan, chief marketing officer of RP3 Agency in Bethesda, Maryland.

"In a way, that was the best thing that could have happened," Caplan said. "Otherwise, it would have died with a whimper."

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Sue Zeidler; Edited by Ronald Grover and David Gregorio)

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