Super Bowl ads play the social-media game –

The Super Bowl used to be a football game, but advertisers are turning the upcoming gridiron event into a high-stakes social-media game.

Today, rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi will unveil separate plans to launch high-profile social-media contests that offer hefty prizes to consumers who best use unconventional social-media tactics to tweet and digitally tout the foreign brands before the Super Bowl.

“We’re using the 2011 Super Bowl as our head-long plunge into committing to social media,” says Stephen Cannon, marketing vice president at Mercedes-Benz. “It’s our strategic leap of faith.”

Most major marketers in the 2011 Super Bowl will have strong social-media components in their campaigns. It’s all about establishing relationships that go far beyond the 30-second TV slots selling for $3 million each. All 68 slots for the Feb. 6 contest on Fox have sold out — months earlier than in the past few years.

Social media, however, is this year’s biggest driver. But watch out. “Most efforts won’t be able to stand out amidst the flood of ‘Let’s Do a Facebook Contest About the Super Bowl’ marketing lemmings,” warns social-media consultant Jay Baer.

Even so, “The ones that don’t do it will be left behind,” says Pam Moore, a social-media consultant. But, she adds, the tweets and Facebook “likes” that Super Bowl marketers all are glomming onto today will seem archaic in just a few years.

Some social-media moves by the automakers:

•Mercedes-Benz. It will unveil plans to launch “The World’s First Twitter-Fueled Race,” which awards two new cars to the two-person team of social-media wizards that garners for Mercedes-Benz the most tweets, Facebook “likes” and social-media currency by game day.

Today, on its Facebook page, Mercedes-Benz USA issues a casting call for social-media users who want to compete in its Twitter-Fueled Race.

Besides rolling out new models in the game, in the next few years Mercedes plans to create cars targeting a much younger demographic, Cannon says. It wants to be much more social-media savvy long before that, he says.

•Audi. The carmarker, in its fourth Super Bowl with a 60-second spot, will host an Audi Inner Circle social-media contest open to everyone.

Audi will seek out — and reward — its 10 “most active” social-media fans before the Super Bowl. It will award glitzy trips and other prizes to the fans whose social-media posts are most original and most numerous. “We’re trying to use social media to glue everything together,” say Scott Keough, chief marketing officer at Audi of America.