When GoDaddy is cramming more puppies than scantily-clad babes into its Super Bowl ads, you know the game has changed.
The NFL's image is hurting after two major domestic violence scandals involving its players. That's not turning away viewers, or Super Bowl advertisers trying to reach them, who are lining up to pay up to a record $4.5 million per spot, up from $4 million last year. Already, 95 percent of the spots have been sold, said Seth Winter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for NBC Sports Group and NBCUniversal News Group, during a press call.
"Most advertisers feel [the NFL] is correcting what they see as significant issues," said Winter. He said one company whose representative voiced "queasiness" had declined to participate. But appetite for the world's biggest television stage is strong enough that 15 new advertisers have signed up.
(TODAY.com and NBCNews.com are owned by NBC Universal, along with NBC, which is broadcasting the Super Bowl this year.)
Many of those that do run ads will be putting distance between themselves and stereotypical macho images, though.
Dove promises to challenge the definition of what it means to be a man today. Sultry women are synonymous with Super Bowl car ads, but Toyota will tweak the formula by featuring paralympic athlete Amy Purdy, a double below knee amputee. And Budweiser has promised an "emotional story" about how a man and his Clydesdale "help a puppy who has lost his way learn the true meaning of friendship."
It will be the third installment in a series of Super Bowl ads Anheuser-Busch has done featuring a horse trainer and his animal friends. Budweiser's "Puppy Love" ad last year won USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter. It was also the most shared ad online, according to analysis by Unruly, a social video technology company.
With that in mind, "advertisers are trying to make us cry this year," said Devra Prywes, vice president of marketing at Unruly.
Tears might seem an odd objective to shoot for between the images of male bodily combat on the gridiron, but for marketers, moving and heartwarming is a smart play, says Dr. Carl Marci. His firm, Innerscope Research, hooks electrodes up to viewers to gauge their physical and emotional response to ads in real time.
"What we know about the emotion centers of the brain is that they pretty reliably will respond to certain categories of stimuli." Sex and celebrity sells for this reason. So does cuteness, which includes, in particular, babies and puppies.
The bet on cuteness is so safe that seven out of ten of the finalists this year in long-running Dorito's contest that lets fan-generated videos become their Super Bowl ad features babies or cute kids. One has a grown man acting like a baby.
Because of the way our brain is wired, the emotional tug can lead to sales. Emotions signal the brain to pay attention to what's in front of it which switches on learning and memory, said Marci. So after seeing a weepy Samsung ad, all things being equal, next time you're buying a TV you'll pay a little more attention to Samsung because you have an emotional connection.
While "product plus groin shot" can cue that connection for some of the audience and turn off others, and there's sure to be several ads at least trying for humor, something that's heartwarming has much wider appeal. Of all the emotional triggers, Prywes says "hilarity" is the hardest to hit. With over 100 million eyeballs on the line for the game itself, plus millions more online, the pressure is on to have the biggest reach possible.
So rather than just slapstick, skin and beer, we've moved, "to something that has much broader palette for emotions," said Marci.
GoDaddy's ad will feature Danica Patrick and puppies. McDonald's said its 60-second ad will "reveal a big idea." The fast food chain lately has revamped its look and said it will focus more on the "loving" part of its "I'm loving it" slogan. Under a website address with the word "Super Bowl" in it, Heinz has launched a new contest inviting customers to share quotes and videos on what makes them the happiest in life.
Clearly, snark is not invited to this Super Bowl party.
The N.F.L. has said it will continue to run its stirring "No More" PSAs addressing the domestic violence issues during the playoffs, but it has not confirmed whether they will run during the Super Bowl.
Touchy subjects aren't necessarily off-limits, if handled appropriately.
"Issues ads do really well, especially if it's a 'social good' take," said Prywes. "One reason people share videos in general is to participate in the zeitgeist."
Experts say the key to success will be to keep it real. Two puppy ads might work, especially if one is itself a joke about puppy dog ads. But ten is creepy and the manipulation becomes apparent.
"Whatever emotional trigger you want to use, make sure it really counts," said Matt Ian, executive creative director at the TBWA\Chiat\Day NY advertising agency. He himself is guilty of putting a dog in a Super Bowl ad at one time.
"If it's a joke, makes sure it's hilarious because it comes from a real human insight. If it's a heartwarming spot, make sure it's not typical, pandering imagery and schmaltzy sentiment," said Ian. "Make sure you're doing it in a genuine way that grabs people. Otherwise you're just playing in a world of cliches."
Email email@example.com or tweet @bpopken.