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Super Bowl LI commercials star Lady Gaga, Melissa McCarthy, Justin Bieber, more

Justin Bieber stars in T-Mobile's Super Bowl LI commercial, which also includes guest appearances by Rob Gronkowski and Terrell Owens. Credit: T-Mobile via YouTube

Welcome to Celebrity Bowl LI. The fun officially begins Sunday, but — in fact — it’s already here. This is the bowl within that other bowl: Those commercials, dozens of them, that sell everything from mobile service to avocado dip, but especially sell the famous faces that star in them.

Lots of famous faces.

Out of a total of 62 Super Bowl commercials on CBS’ telecast of Super Bowl 50 in 2016, just under 40 featured celebrities, according to one count (Encino, California-based E-Poll Market Research). That was an all-time high. There are expected to be fewer celebrity ads on Fox’s Super Bowl LI this year, but “fewer” is a relative term: There will still be dozens.

Justin Bieber’s commercial for T-Mobile was released online Thursday, becoming part of a conga line of pre-releases that star Melissa McCarthy (Kia, although teases only), Tom Brady (Intel), Jason Statham and Gal Gadot (Wix), Joe Montana and Mike Singletary (Hyundai), Lil Buck (Lexus), Marshawn Lynch (Skittles), Brett Favre (Buffalo Wild Wings), Peter Fonda (Mercedes), John Malkovich (Squarespace), Jon Lovitz (Avocadoes from Mexico), Justin Timberlake (Bai) and Lady Gaga (Tiffany).

Meanwhile, Jon Hamm will star in a major in-game commercial for H&R Block. Patriots wide-receiver Rob Gronkowski — sidelined since early December with a ruptured disc — will co-star in at least two commercials, including that one with the Beebs. Adam Driver will star in a live commercial for Snickers after the game ends.

Why this arms race for Super Bowl celebrity pitchmen-and-women? Ever since the first Super Bowl, when RCA hired a Twiggy-lookalike to star in an ad for camera film, advertisers have figured: Why not hire the real person? And they have. Celebrity ads are as fundamental a part of the Super Bowl ad experience as CGI-enhanced (or CGI-degraded) animals. But since the beginning of the decade, they’ve boomed. For example, there were just 19 ads with celebs in 2013. Per E-Poll, the figure doubled in just three years.

Why? Three reasons: The internet, the internet, and the internet. Ads with celebrities live long on past the game, sometimes for years, where they take up permanent residence on Facebook or YouTube. When fans search for their favorite star on Google, they also get the ad on their results list.

Another reason: The ads have enormous traction even before the game — itself one of the reasons behind the so-called pre-release craze of the past decade, in which most ads were online before they were on TV

Ispot-TV — a leading firm that tabulates advertising effectiveness across the media spectrum — reports that of the Top-10 pre-release commercials this year, six feature celebrities. The top-ranked one, by far, is Wix, which stars Statham and Gadot who together demolish a restaurant. (The ad was directed by French-born high-octane action director, Louis Leterrier — the “Transporter” films, “Unleashed,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans” — and looks it.)

How big is the Wix ad? By Thursday, about 20 million people had already seen it online — mostly Facebook (10 million views alone) — which means that by the time this airs in the fourth quarter Sunday, more people will have seen it on their cell phones than on their TVs. Wix — a website builder — got its money’s worth.

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