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Why fresh faces risk fortunes on Super Bowl ads

With the Super Bowl typically scoring as the country's most watched event of the year, the broadcast has no problem attracting some of America's biggest advertisers.

Yet squeezed in among returning stalwarts such as Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser are often several newbies, brands that are ponying up $4 million or more to make their Super Bowl debuts. This year, the game will include several fresh faces during the commercial breaks, including cruise line Carnival Corp., the candy brand Skittles, and web development platform Wix.com.

While the stakes are high for returning advertisers, they might be even steeper for new Super Bowl advertisers. It's not only the high cost of buying commercial time -- a reported $4.5 million this year -- but the fact that the game represents the Holy Grail for marketers: The one day when a commercial is almost guaranteed to draw at least 100 million consumers. In the case of a brilliant ad strategy, that's money in the bank, such as Apple's (AAPL) "1984" ad, which set the fledgling computer company apart from its rivals.

But some marketers have aired epic fails in an effort to push the envelope, leading to humiliation and deeply offended viewers, such as the 1999 Super Bowl commercial for "Just for Feet." That ad showed a white hunter tracking a Kenyan runner and strapping running shoes to his feet. After a backlash from consumers and critics, Just for Feet sued its advertising agency.

For this year's crop of newbie Super Bowl advertisers, the stakes may be higher, given the record price for commercial time as well as the matchup of the Patriots facing the Seattle Seahawks, who will be vying for their second title in a row.

After going public with an IPO in 2013, Wix.com (WIX) aired radio and television ads, building up its customer base. Jumping up to the Super Bowl felt like the right move this year for the growing business, said Eric Mason, the company's director of marketing communications.

"The timing made sense to come to the biggest party in America and let people know who we are," Mason said. He declined to comment on how much the company is spending on its first Super Bowl spot.

Building buzz before an ad airs is essential for Super Bowl marketers, he added. That's a strategy that has been used successfully for the past several years by brands ranging from PepsiCo's (PEP) Doritos, which runs a popular contest that asks regular people to submit their own would-be Super Bowl ads, to Volkswagen, which aired its 2011 Super Bowl spot "The Force" before the game and drew 17 million views before the kickoff.

"You actually build buzz, engage your community, and bring out fun content" in advance of the game, Mason said. "That is the new reality of the Super Bowl."

That also lowers the risk for advertisers, as the brands can gauge how their Super Bowl marketing strategy and messages are being received by consumers.

Wix.com's commercial, which won't be released before the game, will feature several former Super Bowl players as they create small businesses in their post-football years. One teaser features Brett Favre trying to pronounce "charcuterie," while another shows Franco Harris jumping out of a wedding cake (the conceit is that the players are starting charcuterie and wedding planning businesses, and that Wix.com is helping them create their websites.)

"We're getting feedback every day and we are able to tweak our campaign as we go forward," Mason noted.

Still, research shows that most brands face huge odds in making their Super Bowl ads pay off. Four out of five Super Bowl commercials fail to persuade consumers to change their minds about the brands, according to recent research from advertising consulting company Communicus.

Those with the best chance of succeeding are brands similar to Wix.com: Small or relatively unknown brands, the study found.

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