Over the years, The Super Bowl has become as much about the advertisements as the game itself. With a viewing audience of 100 million people in the U.S., it’s the premier marketing event of the year. This year, 32 companies ponied up 2.4 to 3 million dollars per 30-second spot to display their most creative efforts.

But the best Super Bowl ad may have been one that didn’t air during the Super Bowl at all.

NBC rejected a commercial by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) because of it’s highly sexual content. The ad, promoting vegetarianism, features scantily-clad women cavorting with vegetables, with the tag line, “Studies show vegetarians have better sex.”

This isn’t the first time a PETA commercial has been banned from the Super Bowl for being overly sexual. Which makes me wonder if this might actually be PETA’s strategy. If so, it’s brilliant.

Think about it. By creating a commercial they know won’t really be aired, PETA saves a huge chunk of change and gets tons of free publicity. This story has been all over the media lately, driving millions of people to YouTube and PETA’s web site to watch the commercial for themselves.

Now, I’m not a big fan of PETA. I certainly oppose animal cruelty, but my idea of a vegetarian meal is a bacon cheeseburger with extra pickles. And I think a lot of their efforts are just plain silly, like their current campaign to get people to think of fish as “sea kittens.”

However, they are selling their beliefs and ideals, and toward that end, they have historically been very savvy. With this commercial, PETA has tapped into two powerful marketing principles: “sex sells” and “controversy generates publicity.”

Whether your organization can utilize either or both of these principles depends on your brand, your target market and your ability to effectively execute such a strategy, not to mention your tolerance for risk. Then again, risk is a factor in everything, whether you’re playing the game or advertising during it.

To watch the rejected PETA commercial, go to www.peta.org. WARNING: This ad is very sexually suggestive. (Of course, for some of you that’s more of an incentive than a dissuasion.)

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