Innovative ‘real time’ ads have Olympic viewers abuzz

Last Thursday night, American viewers watched in awe as Rebecca Soni won gold in the 200-meter breast stroke, shattering the world record she had just set the day before. When NBC cut to commercial 45 seconds later, they were bowled over once again by an AT&T; ad in which a young female swimmer watches the very same race on her Samsung Galaxy phone, then writes Soni’s record-breaking time of 2:19.59 on a whiteboard under the word “GOAL.”

[For the record: August 14, 10:03 a.m. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that she watched the ad on an iPad.]

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The seemingly instantaneous commercial elicited a collective “How’d they do that?” from the Internet. “If you missed it, one of the coolest ads of all time just ran,” tweeted ESPN business writer Darren Rovell. Other viewers called the ad “jaw-dropping,” “amazing,”and “trippy,” with some even speculating about AT&T;’s powers of clairvoyance.

The commercial was just one in a series of innovative spots created for AT&T; by the advertising agency BBDO. Each of the six commercials incorporated footage from events that had occurred just hours earlier, including the American women’s victory in gymnastics and Sanya Richards-Ross’ win in the 400-meter dash. The AT&T; ads are part of a broader trend in the London Games toward “real time” advertising: quickly produced commercials that enable advertisers to leverage the Olympics’ most buzzworthy moments to their advantage.


While hyper-timely commercials have been around since at least the late ‘80s, when it became standard for Super Bowl champs and newly crowned Miss Americas to declare, “I’m going to Disney World” on camera, this kind of instant-response advertising has surged in recent years.

Visa pioneered the strategy in 2008 with an ad, narrated by Morgan Freeman, congratulating Michael Phelps for winning a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. And during this year’s Super Bowl, Coke aired two spots in which their beloved polar bear mascots reacted in real time to developments in the game.

With a record number of viewers tuning in to the London Games – and chattering about them online – advertisers have upped the ante. This year Visa has produced five more Freeman-narrated spots to congratulate Phelps, as well as track-and-field star Allyson Felix and beach volleyball duo Kerri Walsh andMisty May-Treanor. (Rounding out the crop are two commercials for the Canadian market lauding homegrown medal-winners Emilie Heymans and Brent Hayden.)

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Even though they commemorate events broadcast on television just minutes earlier, the sepia-toned commercials are almost nostalgic in tone. They provide a clever way for advertisers to tap into the heartwarming sentiment generated by the Olympics, says Tim Nudd, editor at AdWeek.

The real-time commercials are “more exciting, more dynamic, more engaged” than conventional advertisements, more like entertainment than “a prefab sales pitch,” Nudd says.

Not surprisingly, social media are a major force behind the trend, as advertisers seek creative ways to engage with consumers and harness the energy surrounding major televised events, like this year’s Olympics. The real-time ads arrive at a time when social media are playing a newly prominent role in the Games. In 2008, Twitter was still in its infancy; now virtually every high-profile American athlete has an active account on the microblogging site, and by the time they’re over, the Games of the XXX Olympiad are expected to have become the most tweeted-about event in history.

In order for advertisers to stay timely and relevant, “our content needs to move at the speed of social media,” says Kevin Burke, head of global consumer marketing at Visa.

BBDO creative director Greg Hahn echoes this sentiment: “We live in such an instant gratification society now, but commercials have never been able to respond or interact that quickly. So it was interesting for viewers to see a big brand advertise in a way that’s so up-to-the-moment.”

The goal for AT&T; wasn’t simply to engage with viewers, it was also to dazzle them -- to take their excitement over the Olympics and redirect it toward their own clever campaign. “We wanted that reaction of ‘How did they do it?’, ‘Like a magic trick,’ ” Hahn admits.

The truth is not so much “magical” as tedious: For each of the six spots they produced, BBDO filmed dozens of possible results so whatever the winning time or score, they would be covered. Thanks to the tape delay from London and a partnership with NBC that allowed them quick access to official footage, BBDO could turn around the completed commercials in a matter of hours, thereby creating the illusion of real-time advertising.

Visa deployed a similar strategy, creating multiple commercials according to the same template, complete with voice-overs and “placeholders” left for real-time footage.

In the era of the DVR , the ads have gotten viewers to ease off the fast-forward button, so don’t be surprised if real-time advertising pops up during other events in the near future. “I don’t see why commercials couldn’t respond to the best actor or actress at the Oscars,” Nudd says.


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