Blogs & Comment

Super Bowl advertising will be heavy on hashtags

Audi started a trend at last year's game, but are hashtags actually useful?

In a post on Deadspin yesterday, Drew Magary wrote about how Twitter has become essential to the sports fan’s TV viewing experience, even saying that he feels “completely naked” watching a game without it. He’s far from alone. Nielsen reported in October that roughly 40% of Americans use their mobile and tablet devices daily while watching TV, of which 42% check social networking sites. For tech-savvy sports fans, Twitter has become the ultimate sports bar, and on Super Bowl Sunday it’ll be packed.

During last year’s game, which was watched by 111 million Americans, Audi tried tapping into this sizable chunk of multitasking TV viewers. The automaker flashed a hashtag at the end of its 60-second spot (see above)—just one element of a multi-part strategy to build online buzz—and enlisted Klout to find Audi-focused tweeters. Those people sent more than 12,000 messages using the hashtag, thereby setting off a groundswell of discussion.

In the process, Audi became the first company to use a hashtag in a Super Bowl ad. On Sunday, a host of other companies will follow their lead.

Adam Bain, Twitter’s president of global revenue, anticipates that “at least half” of Super Bowl advertisers will incorporate hashtags into their commercials. Audi, H&M, General Electric and Jack in the Box are all using them in their ads, and no doubt they’ll be joined by others.

Meanwhile, Twitter is doing its part to promote ad-related chatter. Bain told Fast Company that Twitter has launched something called “Ad Scrimmage,” a venue to measure social media buzz for Super Bowl commercials. The winning company will get a free “Promoted Trend” on the micro-blogging site.

That said, it’s worth asking whether hashtags are worth anything more than a brief tweetstorm of conversation and a momentary surge in new followers. Besides, what happens if your hashtag becomes a lightning rod for criticism?

You might remember that McDonald’s started a hashtag last month—called “#McDStories”—drunk with visions of social media praise for its food. Instead, the hashtag backfired, morphing into a venue where people ripped on the company. In a pitch-perfect example of corporate-speak, McDonald’s social media director, Rick Wion, said: “As Twitter continues to evolve its platform and engagement opportunities, we’re learning from our experiences.”

In other words, when it comes to social media, companies are throwing ideas to the wind and seeing what does and doesn’t work. Despite last year’s heavy Twitter campaign, Audi told Fast Company that it didn’t know the actual impact of their online buzz. Still, the automaker has a new spot in this year’s Super Bowl, and once again a hashtag appears at the ad’s conclusion. For other companies, the lure of using one has also proven irresistible—even if its merits are debatable.