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For Super Bowl ads, it's go viral or go home

Call them super leaks, super teasers or super previews. But for a growing number of Super Bowl advertisers, they are super smart business.

For years, Super Bowl commercials were closely guarded secrets until they aired on the biggest ratings day of the year. These days, companies have discovered that teasing them online in advance of the big day is a more efficient way of getting their brand message in front of the masses.

CBS, which will broadcast Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, sold 30-second ad slots for up to $4 million, so it’s no wonder advertisers try to squeeze every drop of value out of their investment.

"We are seeing more teasers because they have been effective," said Steve Posavac, professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. "This year, many advertisers feel that if they don’t release a teaser, they will fail to gain consumers’ mindshare, and that their ads will be lost in the clutter."

Mercedes-Benz roared out of the starting line first last week, with its spot featuring Kate Upton. Strutting in daisy dukes and a low cut tank top, the striking supermodel blows suds in slow motion at a group of guys as they wash her Benz and ogle her frame, mouths agape.

Though it shows less skin than a standard shampoo commercial -- and seems demure in comparison to Upton's past backseat turn for Carl's Jr. last year – it has already drummed up plenty of buzz. As of Friday night, the teaser racked has up more than 4.6 million YouTube views.

Related: 'Big Bang Theory' star grants wishes in Super Bowl ad

That’s right, more than a week before the San Francisco 49ers face the Baltimore Ravens, Mercedes-Benz’s ad is already a success. And, thanks to the Parents’ Television Council, we have the first Super Bowl controversy.

"This ad [reinforces] for millions of wives, daughters and sisters across the country that you use your sex appeal to get what you want," a Parents' Television Council spokesperson told the Daily Mail, complaining that the ad "isn't selling cars, it’s selling sexual objectification."

The sound bite provided global media outlets (ours included) the perfect news hook. In the following days, the ad has been discussed, analyzed, and played over and over again, at no cost to the Mercedes. Talk about return on investment!

The luxury German automaker isn’t the only player in this game. Coca-Cola, Skechers, Wonderful Pistachios (with 'Gagngam Style' superstar Psy) and MiO (with Tracy Morgan) have released previews.

Coke is also making a huge social media play with its "Mirage" campaign. In it, three quirky character-driven groups -- show girls, badlanders, and cowboys -- race across an African desert to be the first to reach the thirst-quenching Coca-Cola oasis. A preview spot is circulating online encouraging viewers to vote online to determine which group ends up winning in the final spot. Online surfers can either vote by "old-fashioned" online button clicking, or vote-casting with the Twitter hashtags #CokeCowboys, #CokeShowgirls and #CokeBadlanders.

The beverage giant’s advertising company has also cooked up animated gifs, "sabotage videos" and other content ready-made for Tweeting, Tumbling, Instagramming, and Facebooking. 

Indeed, Coke has come a long way from Mean Joe Greene’s jersey toss in Coke’s legendary commercial 34 years ago.

The reason for the big social push is simple: More shares equal more views, which equals more brand exposure.

"Without a social media component, a Super Bowl ad is worthless," said David Johnson, CEO of public relations agency Strategic Vision.

Social has risen and advertisers are rising to meet it.

"Three quarters of the audience will be on a 'second screen' during the Super Bowl,” said Ankarino Lara, chief product officer for Thismoment, which builds branded online content distribution software. "The biggest brands recognize the audience shift and plan mobile and on live elements in their campaigns."

According to data by the Unruly Viral Video Chart, the "Billboard 100 of viral videos," 75 percent of the top 20 most-shared ads from Super Bowl 2012 went up online before game day;  55 percent of sharing happened after March 1, 2012; and total Super Bowl ads shares increased by 129 percent from 2011 to 2012.

Audi is taking a similar "choose your own adventure" approach as Coke's. On Thursday night, it posted the beginning of its ad, showing a kid driving to his high school prom dateless but in his dad's new 2013 Audi S6 high-performance sports sedan. The German automaker also uploaded three versions of the ending, giving viewers 24 hours to vote on which one will make the final cut.

Other companies are also hopping on the social bandwagon: 

  • Doritos has reprised its annual "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, allowing a fan-made commercial to air during the game. 
  • Lincoln has teamed up with Jimmy Fallon to let fans write the script for its commercial on Twitter with the hashtag #Steerthescript. 
  • Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Toyota will include fan-submitted photos in a commercial. 
  • VW is promoting the #GetHappy hashtag.

Advertisers still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, though, and some are deliberately taking an "anti-leak" strategy that still has an eye on Twitter impact.

"Some advertisers are holding back ads for a 'surprise' factor and for the instant chatter that will take place on social media during the game," said Katherine Wintsch, founder of The Mom Complex, an Interpublic Group of Companies unit focused on marketing to mothers.

Brands still place a premium on using the Super Bowl as the ultimate stage for product debuts; Anheuser-Busch is going to debut two new drinks at the game: Budweiser Black Crown and Beck's Sapphire.

"I don’t know what it is, but everyone finds humor in dog ads or baby ads," John Yorke, President of creative firm Rain 43, said. "Last year, we saw lots of both – and the highest rated ads came from these categories – so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – expect to see more of this trend."