Today, across the country, football fans woke up like it’s Christmas morning; betting pools are now being finalized, cheese-laden dips are being stirred to heart-stopping perfection and beer cans are clicking open at an alarming rate, all in preparation for the biggest night on television, football’s highest Holy Day, the Super Bowl.

The 1997 commercial is a classic Super Bowl ad moment But it’s also as monumental a day for advertisers, as they wait in nail-biting anxiety to see if their 30-second, $3-million-dollar gamble hits it big or busts with the 100 million-strong American audience.  It’s the ultimate test (but the biggest pay-off) to create a Super Bowl ad like the Budweiser Frogs, Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird’s H-O-R-S-E game for McDonald’s, or Cindy Crawford’s sizzling Pepsi spot – ads that live on in the hearts (and consumer-conscious minds) of today’s TV-watcher.  One memorable ad can skyrocket your brand to fame or send it fizzling down the tubes.

But this year, with many companies financially strained, the pressure to make it work is pushing advertisers to go even further, merge their traditional campaign efforts with social media to generate more buzz (and/or make sure their investment was somewhat worth it).   It seems the days of mere mass-market media are over, and now one must use new vehicles in innovative ways to make a splash in the ever-growing ocean of consumer competition.

So far, companies have been taking their social media/ad hybrid campaigns in several unique directions:

To Get People Talking

Having the public discuss your ad before it even airs?  Now that’s an advertiser’s dream.  And with powerful social media platforms like Facebook now at their fingertips, companies like Budweiser and Coca-Cola are making it a reality.   They’ve capitalized on their Fan Pages, urging fans to share content and take part in Super Bowl-themed initiatives that simultaneously pump-up their in-game ads.

Anheuser-Busch, SB XLIV’s biggest advertiser who’s occupying a mammoth five minutes of airtime, is a Super Bowl ad veteran.  This year they’re letting the fans in on their advertising fame by using their Facebook page as an entry site to let fans choose their favorite of three commercial choices, the winner of which will be aired tonight as the Fan Favorite.Which ad will be the victor? This year, the fans will decide.

Coca-Cola is pumping its Live Positively campaign through a Facebook app that allows their fans to share a virtual Coke bottle on Facebook in order to get a sneak preview of one of its ad spots.  A silly incentive on the surface (I mean, is anyone really that desperate to see a commercial before it airs?), the campaign does have some substance underneath, as the company also pledges to donate $1 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for each virtual Coke bottle shared.  And with over 4 million fans, that could mean a lot of dollar donations.  This second factor has helped the brand become the fourth most talked about advertiser for positive buzz in Super Bowl social media on the web, as measured by Alterian SM2, a social media-monitoring site.

To Stir-up Controversy

Two companies in particular have fully embraced the concept “There is no such thing as bad press,” releasing controversial commercials that are banned from Super Bowl airing, but have shown up miraculously online.

The ad was banned after critics said it reinforced gay stereotypes

GoDaddy, the web-hosting company who is no newcomer to boundary-pushing ads, is one of these.  Their “Lola” ad,which features a former football player now turning his attention toward more feminine activities, was banned by CBS, but has been generating tons of buzz (mostly negative) online after it showed up on video-sharing sites like YouTube.  Alterian SM2 ranked GoDaddy as the fifth overall most talked about advertiser in social media Super Bowl conversations, so obviously their plan achieved its goal.

And we can’t forget the Tim Tebow controversy.  The Heisman-winning star quarterback appeared in an ad for anti-gay, anti-choice evangelical group Focus on the Family, which was dropped after it met a whirlwind of dissent from interest groups and fans alike.

No one has seen the ad, but it has nonetheless become the second-most widely discussed Super Bowl ad this year.  News that it even exists is causing people across the country to hit their keyboards, filling up Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social sites with their opinions, rants and raves; and through the storm, Focus on the Family has become one of the most buzzed-about advertisers in Super Bowl XLIV.

To Skip the Super Bowl Entirely

Pepsi chose to pour even more money into a social media-do good campaignIt was huge news earlier this week when Pepsi, a Super Bowl advertising heavyweight, announced that they will not be airing a Super Bowl ad.  For the first time in 23 years, the soft-drink giant is letting Coke tempt cola-thirsty consumers.  But they have a genius back-up plan: a $20 million social media campaign in which they’re encouraging people to submit ideas on how they can “refresh” their communities.  Called the “Pepsi Refresh Project,” site visitors then vote for their favorite idea, and the most popular will be awarded the funds by Pepsi.

The campaign is already a huge success: it’s ranked No. 1 in Super Bowl advertisers for total number of mentions and overall reach online, making Pepsi’s shocking drop out actually a stroke of advertising genius.

So it seems social media has already won Super Bowl XLIV – a newly recruited advertising clutch play that is truly changing the game.   It’s always risk to take such a big gamble on a rookie, but the versatile approaches seen this year prove that all the bets were well worth it.   And from now on, I think we can all put our money on the fact that social media will continue to move up the ranks as a top player, slowly making its way to clinch hall of fame status and beyond.