Spoiler alert: Super Bowl ads are already on YouTube

January 30, 2013: 11:03 AM ET

More companies are revealing their big Super Bowl ads online before the big game. Here's why the practice is working.

By Kurt Wagner

130130033031-volkswagen-darth-vader-commercial-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- In 2011, Volkswagen had a crazy idea: they put their Super Bowl commercial on YouTube – before the game.

The now-famous ad, depicting a young boy dressed as Darth Vader who uses "The Force" to start his father's Passat (in actuality, Dad's using a remote starter), has amassed nearly 56 million YouTube views. But the commercial was more than just another viral video. It signaled a new Super Bowl ad strategy, one built for the online community.

In 2012, more than 60% of advertisers released ads or teasers on YouTube before the actual Super Bowl, says Suzie Reider, industry director at the video site. The ad campaigns that nixed the element of surprise were rewarded with more YouTube views – by a substantial margin – than those uploaded following the game.

"There will be so much more activity around the advertisements on YouTube than there will be on game day," says Reider. "I think that's a real interesting statement for how the marketing climate is changing." Advertising campaigns that released commercials or teasers prior to Super Bowl Sunday averaged 9.1 million YouTube viewers last year.  Those that waited until game day to upload their commercials averaged 1.3 million viewers, she added.  Ads or teasers are released up to two weeks before the game, but many hit YouTube less than a week before kickoff.

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Super Bowl ads have long been part of the game-day experience, but advertisers are now funneling more resources toward online campaigns in addition to expensive 30- and 60-second television spots. This year, a 30-second commercial aired during the game will cost roughly $3.8 million.

Companies often put their commercials or teasers on their corporate YouTube pages, but many are supplementing these ads with banner or TrueView advertisements, the short video ads viewers have the option to skip before their desired video. "YouTube has become the litmus test for success," says Justin Osborne, managing director for market communications at Volkswagen. "It's one of our major metrics for success, 'How many views did we get?'" Volkswagen, whose search-advertising budget for the Super Bowl grew 50% over last year, used a teaser to promote this year's full commercial, which was unveiled on Monday.

Anheuser-Busch is tackling the Super Bowl from a number of different angles, unveiling both teasers and commercials, sponsoring banner ads and even launching a new Twitter account for its Bud Light brand. The beverage giant is also unveiling a new product, Beck's Sapphire, and its digital ad budget has increased "significantly" over 2012, says Lucas Herscovici, VP of digital for Anheuser-Busch. "We want to be where consumers are," he added. "That's why we have shifted money that we had elsewhere to digital, and we've shifted money that we might not have invested in [digital and YouTube] around the Super Bowl, we are investing it now."

The trend highlights the power of the online audience, where social media spreads clever ads like wildfire. The 2012 Super Bowl claimed a record-breaking television audience of 111 million viewers, but last year's Super Bowl ads combined for more than 300 million views online. Thanks to YouTube's AdBlitz, a featured channel that uploads all Super Bowl ads as they are shown live on TV, YouTube has doubled its Super Bowl-related revenue every year since 2009, says Reider. Plus, advertisers are capitalizing on pop culture icons already popular across social media. Mercedes enlisted former Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover model Kate Upton for a teaser already totaling close to 5.5 million views; Wonderful Pistachios is rumored to be launching a commercial featuring Korean pop star Psy, whose song "Gangnam Style" has more than 1.2 billion views and ranks as the most popular YouTube video of all time.

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Of course, saving the surprise for Super Bowl Sunday can still create a buzz. Chrysler's "Halftime in America" ad featuring Clint Eastwood was uploaded following the game last year and garnered nearly 11.5 million views. Many advertisers are taking an in-between approach, using teasers to generate interest for the full commercial that will air during the game. Mercedes has five teasers up, all encouraging customers to tune in on game day for the unveiling of the company's newest car, the Mercedes CLA. (Mercedes is even using the commercial to announce the car's cost, which will be in the ballpark of $30,000, says Bernie Glaser, VP of marketing.) Coke's minute-long teaser is leaving the commercial's ending up to a viewer vote.

With marketers devoting copious attention and resources to Super Bowl Sunday, could other Super Bowl-like events one day carry the same prestige in the word of advertising? Perhaps the Olympics? Or soccer's World Cup? Both Osborne and Herscovici believe so. "From a budgetary perspective, I hope there aren't many more," joked Osborne. "From a marketing perspective, I think they're great."

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