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How advertisers turned the presidential debate into a new Super Bowl

Men from the United States and Mexico meet for drinks at the “Tecate beer wall” during an ad timed to Monday’s presidential debate. (Courtesy of Tecate)
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Beer commercials, bad jokes and multimillion-dollar deals: TV ads for the “Super Bowl of politics” looked a lot like, well, the Super Bowl.

About 81 million viewers tuned in Monday night to watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off during what early numbers suggest was the most-watched presidential debate in U.S. history.

But the real winners of the contest were the broadcast and cable networks, who sold ads during their pre- and post-debate coverage at rates of more than $200,000 for a 30-second spot.

The 90-minute debate, which ran on all major networks, presented a major challenge to advertisers: No half-time show, no product placement and no commercial breaks. Even that didn’t stop CNN, CBS, NBC or other networks from selling out all ad time around the debate.

By early Monday, Fox News confirmed that all ad space between 7 p.m. and midnight had been sold out, with ads from financial-services firms, automakers, a beer company and multiple films.

The onslaught was a sign that this madcap election has drawn advertisers to a political arena they probably would not have otherwise embraced.

Some of the advertisers were high-paying regulars of the prime-time football crowd, drawn to the event for its promised sky-high viewership. GoDaddy, the domain-registration site known for its controversial Super Bowl ads, ran a party-convention-style commercial, replete with clapping veterans, during pre- and post-debate coverage on CNN, CBS and Fox News.

Automakers and other TV stalwarts also seized the opportunity to expand their ads toward the voting crowd. Audi rolled out a stylish ad in which a man and woman dueled through a political event at a hotel, with the slogan, “Choose the next driver wisely.”

Other companies saw an opportunity to strike out with campaigns far removed from their traditional spending. A Tecate Light ad satirized Trump’s Mexican border wall by turning it into a waist-high bar that Mexicans and Americans used to hold their beers.

The Mexican-beer brand has traditionally focused its ad spending on boxing matches. But Tecate’s parent, the Dutch brewer Heineken, paid to run the ad during debate coverage on Fox News and the Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision, believing it would help the brand “go beyond our Hispanic bicultural consumer to target the general consumer,” Tecate vice president Felix Palau said.

“We’re a Mexican brand, so the wall is a topic that is very close to us, and we saw an opportunity to insert ourselves into this conversation and do it in a very lighthearted way,” Palau said. He wouldn’t say how much money they spent on the ad, though he added, “This is our Super Bowl.”

A CNN ad even made political-news theater into an advertising opportunity. Filmed on a set made to look like a cable-news stage, the ad for cable network Epix saw TV talking heads, including former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele and former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, talking about a fictional politician in a new Epix series premiering next month.

The debate broke a viewership record set in 1980, when about 80 million tuned in to watch Jimmy Carter face off with Ronald Reagan. The first two debates in 2012 between President Obama and Mitt Romney averaged about 66 million viewers. About 112 million people watched the Super Bowl this year.

The debate was aired on a dozen TV channels, including ABC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, NBC and MSNBC. And a number of digital offerings — including partnerships between ABC and Facebook, and Bloomberg and Twitter, as well as YouTube feeds from PBS, Telemundo and The Washington Post — gave advertisers new ways to hit big audiences.

Those debates were traditionally carried only by the three big broadcasters, ABC, NBC and CBS. But a shift toward Web streaming has allowed more outlets to get in on the action. More than a million people watched the debate live on YouTube or via NBC’s online stream.

The companies also had to compete with the political campaigns, advocacy groups and super PACs paying for online ads, in hopes of reaching viewers watching the debates with an eye on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. Trump’s campaign paid for Snapchat filters on Monday promoting the debate with “Crooked Hillary.”

The ad deals were strong even as the debate faced off with America’s other big-money pastime — football. Viewership estimates sagged for the Atlanta Falcons-New Orleans Saints matchup on ESPN to about 10 million viewers, industry data show, down a few million from the typical Monday night game. The second debate, on Oct. 9, will run into a Sunday night game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.

For the TV networks, the deals came with a big cherry on top: The networks had to spend next to nothing to air the debates because they’re recorded by a shared camera unit, known as a pool feed, and produced by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates.

That meant much of the ad-sales money was pure profit. Fox News advertising executive Paul Rittenberg told Adweek the debates were “our version of the Super Bowl — or at least the playoffs,” and predicted a “multimillion-dollar revenue night.”