A company yet to be selected will have its own 30-second ad during the game, giving it the kind of exposure usually reserved for mega-brands like Budweiser and Chevrolet. The spot will be the culmination of a competition sponsored by software maker Intuit Inc., which has never run a Super Bowl commercial of its own, but is paying for one small business to be in the spotlight during the third quarter of the Big Game.
"This is the sort of thing that small businesses dream about," says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "It's impossible to match the attention you get from being in the Super Bowl."
There's also some risk. Small businesses often don't have the capacity to handle the kind of exposure that the winner is bound to get. The company will need to be prepared to handle the sudden surge in business it might get from the ad. Intuit, which makes software for small businesses says that ability will be one of the criteria companies must meet to make it to the final stages of the competition.
The Super Bowl draws more than 100 million U.S. viewers. The match between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers in February was seen by 108.4 million people.
Super Bowl commercials are a "can you top that" showcase for advertising agencies, which try to come up with the funniest and most memorable ads. The commercials have become as a big a deal as the game and the halftime show. Viewers tweet their reactions and post comments on Facebook during the game and chat about the best and worst when they get to work the next day.
"The advertising is entertainment in and of itself," says Sheri Bridges, an associate professor of marketing at Wake Forest University's School of Business.
The small business commercial will differ from most Super Bowl commercials, which add another layer of gloss to a well-known brand. The small business spot will be created by RPA, an advertising agency that has produced past Super Bowl commercials, including an Acura ad starring Jerry Seinfeld and a Honda spot with Matthew Broderick for the 2012 game.
RPA says it expects to create the same kind of high-quality production for the competition winner as it does for its big corporate clients. But unlike Super Bowl commercials that are designed to make viewers laugh or feel intense emotions, this commercial will also have to be about the company and what it does.
"We're going to be doing something more rooted in the business and who they are rather than just catching eyeballs," says Adam Lowery, a creative director at RPA.
But some companies have been launched into the public's consciousness by Super Bowl ads. Bridges cites as an example, Monster.com's 1999 commercial that showed children talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up.
And in 1984, Apple was not yet a giant when it ran what's considered the gold standard of Super Bowl ads, a spot that created buzz about the upcoming introduction of the Macintosh. The spot, directed by filmmaker Ridley Scott, was a take on George Orwell's "1984" and showed a young woman, representing Apple, destroying the status quo.
"Many people point to Apple's Mac ad as a sort of the perfect example of what a Super Bowl ad can do, and it really did give the brand an enormous amount of attention and momentum," Calkins says.
Any kind of small business can enter the competition. In the first round, companies will sign up at www.SmallBusinessBig Game.com and tell their stories. The public votes on who advances to the next round. The 50,000 companies with the most votes then continue telling their stories, with Intuit employees voting for the 20 best. Four of those will become finalists chosen by Intuit employees, and the public will then choose the winning company.
Intuit will pay for the commercial, which will run into the millions of dollars. Thirty-second spots cost as much as $4 million in the last Super Bowl.
But success isn't guaranteed. If the commercial doesn't engage or entertain the audience, it can be quickly forgotten.
"The expectations are that the ads will be so doggone entertaining," says Bridges, the Wake Forest professor. "If they're not, you're like the girl who wears the ugly dress to the prom."
If the winner has the right commercial and the right product or service, the company may find it's able to get lenders or investors who are willing to help them expand, Bridges says. That money will be particularly welcome if the commercial leads to an explosion in demand from new customers.
When the four finalists are chosen, RPA will start coming up with ideas for commercials for all of them. But while only one company will make it to the Super Bowl, the work on ads for the three runners-up won't go to waste, says Nathan Crow, a creative director at the agency. The commercials will be completed and will be shown at other times.
"They won't make it to the big game, but they'll make out pretty well," Crow says.
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