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Labatt, which distributes Budweiser in Canada, is one of the few companies creating a spot just for the Super Bowl broadcast in Canada – but it is using hockey as the hook. (Labatt Brewing/Labatt Brewing)
Labatt, which distributes Budweiser in Canada, is one of the few companies creating a spot just for the Super Bowl broadcast in Canada – but it is using hockey as the hook. (Labatt Brewing/Labatt Brewing)

ADHOCRACY

Why most Super Bowl ads get stopped at the border Add to ...

No Soup Nazi for you.

Yes, the famous character from Seinfeld will appear alongside the show’s creator in a much buzzed-about commercial for Honda’s Acura NSX this Sunday. And no, you won’t see it if you’re watching the Super Bowl on television in Canada.

It’s the same story every year: In the United States, advertisers shell out on huge production budgets to make eye-catching ads and pay millions more to air them. Meanwhile, because of TV rights issues, the Canadian broadcast is full of the same ads you might see any night of the week.

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And yet, many of the companies who advertise here are affiliated with U.S. businesses that have access to that splashy creative – so it might seem curious that so many ad campaigns stop at the border. Especially since Canadian airtime sells for peanuts. NBC is charging $3.5-million (U.S.) to run a 30-second commercial during the big game, according to reports. By contrast, sources here say a 30-second spot on CTV runs closer to $130,000 (Canadian). That’s a pittance for any advertiser that might want to air those big-budget Super Bowl spots to leverage the pent-up demand for them among Canadian viewers. Still, many don’t buy airtime here.

But some advertisers this year are bucking the trend. For the first time, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. will be airing the same commercial in Canada that it does in the United States. The spot is a continuation of a campaign that has drawn a lot of attention for Samsung, mocking Apple customers as essentially brand lemmings, with the tagline “The Next Big Thing is Already Here.” The response has been especially good online, leading Samsung Canada to air the Super Bowl spot on television in Canada too.

“This is unprecedented in our history,” says Ken Price, Samsung Canada’s director of marketing. “Advertising is to the Super Bowl what the red carpet is to the Oscars. … I think we can really stand out, knowing that you still get a lot of the same creative [in Canada]that’s shown at other times.”

Not all advertisers in Canada agree that the Super Bowl is the place to make that kind of investment. The prevailing notion is that the game just does not have the cultural resonance here that it does in the United States. And yet, the Super Bowl was the third most-watched television program in Canada in all of 2011 – only the Stanley Cup Finals were bigger – drawing 6.53 million viewers, according to BBM Canada. Why not take advantage of those numbers?

There are good reasons U.S. creative does not always make it across the border. For one, a Super Bowl ad will often use big-name talent, but talent fees are country-specific. So a Canadian marketer would be faced with paying extra fees. Required post-production changes also push up the cost: Canadian packaging must show English and French, for instance, so a shot of a U.S. product does not always suffice. And the legal fine print is different in Canada.

Pepsi has splashed out for celebrity ads in the United States featuring Elton John and Regis Philbin. But they won’t be seen here. Only one Pepsi spot will air in the Canadian broadcast, and it has already been on air here since early January.

Technology has changed the game, says Greg Lyons, vice-president of marketing for PepsiCo Beverages Canada. Thanks to the Internet, the difference in TV broadcasts no longer excludes Canadian viewers from seeing the U.S. Super Bowl spots – and even if advertisers don’t bring pricey U.S. creative to Canada’s airwaves, there is still a chance to create buzz here.

“We fully expect Canadian consumers to watch our Pepsi Max ad during the broadcast, but also to check out all the other great PepsiCo ads online. Technology enables full access, and that makes marketers think differently about their advertising choices,” he says.

And the cost can backfire if the ad does not resonate with Canadians. Last year, Hyundai Auto Canada Corp. paid to air its U.S. ads in Canada for the new Elantra. But the response was decidedly lukewarm. “The creative wasn’t a homerun,” says vice-president of marketing John Vernile.

This year, for the first time, Hyundai is creating an ad specifically for the Canadian Super Bowl broadcast.

“Some marketers are missing the boat if they run their regular, everyday TV creative during the Super Bowl. I think they’re missing an opportunity for entertainment,” he says.

But some advertising agencies advise their clients against splashing out for the Super Bowl in Canada, simply because it does not have the same cultural impact here.

“There’s no shortage of people in our business who are dying to do cool things. But those things cost money. … If we were to do [a big-budget ad] there would be other places I would go to first,” says David Gibb, executive vice-president and managing director of JWT Canada. Those places include sports broadcasts such as the World Junior Hockey Championships and the Stanley Cup final – since Canadians’ hearts lie with hockey.

Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. is attempting to make the best of this. It is one of the few companies creating a spot just for the Super Bowl in Canada – and it is using hockey to make an impact.

While Budweiser’s iconic Clydesdales tromp majestically across U.S. screens, Labatt (which distributes the beer in Canada) has created its own commercial. The company hijacked a recreational hockey league game, filling an arena in Port Credit, Ont., with roughly 500 “fans,” complete with noisemakers, team flags and even a few painted torsos. Mascots charged the ice with T-shirt cannons. Replays lit up a Jumbotron. Sportscasters called the plays. Labatt filmed the entire spectacle, fulfilling a dream for a handful of weeknight warriors.

“We wanted to do something that really resonated with Canadians. … Hockey is where it’s at – even though it’s during the Super Bowl, hockey is first – so it was an opportunity to combine the two,” says Budweiser Canada spokesperson Briar Wells.

Like many companies, Labatt often creates separate advertising for Budweiser in Canada. But it is also taking the relatively rare step of making something specially for the Super Bowl that, like its U.S. counterparts, is flashy and emotional – but also distinctly Canadian.

“It’s such a big platform, and there’s so much attention given to it,” Ms. Wells says. “It’s a great way for us to leverage something big and bold.”

***

Swapped signals

Why don’t we see the big buzz Super Bowl commercials again?

It’s a rights issue. Canadian TV networks pay for the rights to broadcast a program in this country. They make their money on ads. To protect their exclusivity – and their investment – it’s necessary to prevent American signals from cannibalizing viewership.

Roughly 90 per cent of the Canadian public get their TV signals on cable and satellite feeds, which include some American channels. Whenever a U.S. station is showing the same program as a Canadian channel, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission requires that, upon request by a Canadian broadcaster, the cable or satellite provider must switch from the American signal to the Canadian feed so that the Canadian commercials are visible and the broadcasters’ rights deals are upheld.

The process is known under CRTC regulation as “simultaneous substitution.” – a boon to the broadcast networks, a bane to the average Super Bowl viewer hungry for star-studded U.S. spots.

Susan Krashinsky

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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