The logo for Super Bowl XLV outside of Cowboys Stadium on January 30, 2011 in Arlington, Texas ©Tom Pennington-Getty Images

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It wasn't your typical over-the-top Super Bowl commercial.

The animated spot featured an Asian panda bear complaining to his wife about a lack of customers at the family business, Ling Ling's Bamboo Furniture Shack. A psychic panda appears and suggests that the couple turn to Salesgenie.com for free sales leads.

The commercial, which aired during Super Bowl XLII in February 2008, was criticized for evoking racist stereotypes. But the 30-second spot succeeded in attracting attention to the small company, a unit of Infogroup in Omaha, Neb.

It's certainly not cheap to advertise during the Super Bowl -- a 30-second spot during this year's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers costs around $3 million, and the slots have been sold out since October.

But the Super Bowl broadcast represents an unparalleled opportunity to reach a mass audience, marketing experts say. Last year's game was seen by 106.5 million viewers, and Sunday's broadcast is expected to attract as many as 110 million, according to MayoSeitz Media.

That's why this year's game has again attracted some of the nation's biggest advertisers, including Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD, news), Best Buy (BBY, news), and General Motors (GM, news). The commercials provide fodder for office chit-chat, which encourages some advertisers to be outrageous and edgy.

"Super Bowl advertising is an event," says Lonny Strum of the Strum Consulting Group in Voorhees, N.J. "Even if you're a medium-sized company and advertising (during the Super Bowl broadcast), it gives you the opportunity to appear as a mega-company."

As a result, smaller companies are regularly willing to gamble on the expense of producing and airing commercials for the Super Bowl broadcast. It's a gamble that has clearly paid off for HomeAway, an online vacation-home marketplace, and other companies. For others, including Salesgenie, a Super Bowl commercial that courts controversy and risks a thumbs-down from critics can still pay off.

"A lot of these smaller companies want exposure very quickly, so there's nothing like the Super Bowl to do that," said Brian Steinberg of Advertising Age, a trade publication for marketing professionals.

Go Daddy, a provider of Web domain names and hosting packages, was a virtual unknown before its foray into Super Bowl advertising in 2005. The Scottsdale, Ariz., company is now known for its saucy ads featuring race-car driver Danica Patrick and others.

Founder and CEO Bob Parsons has vowed that the company's campaign for Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast will be as brash as ever and will feature Patrick and the latest "Go Daddy Girl," Jillian Michaels, a personal trainer best known for her starring role on the reality TV show ''The Biggest Loser."

"I would think the Super Bowl probably put Go Daddy on the map," says Tom Egelhoff, the founder of SmallTownMarketing.com. "It was probably a stretch for them to be on there."

Smaller companies that air Super Bowl commercials are "either bringing out new products or trying to build a strong brand, like Go Daddy" Strum says.

Groupon, an online coupon service that operates in more than 300 markets and 35 countries, is preparing its first foray into television advertising with a spot during the Super Bowl pregame show.

The Super Bowl will likely be a good venue for the daily-deal website, Strum said. The four-year-old company recently turned heads when it rejected acquisition advances from Google (GOOG, news). It subsequently said it had received almost $1 billion in venture capital.

Groupon could follow the edgy path taken by the likes of Salesgenie and Go Daddy, or opt for the kind of positive exposure elicited by last year's Super Bowl commercial for HomeAway. The Austin, Texas, company's spot used Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo to spoof their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold from the 1989 movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

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"They're back again this year, so clearly it worked," Steinberg said of HomeAway.

CEO Brian Sharples said in a statement that the company's "Hotel Hell Vacation" commercial generated a 500% increase in traffic to its website the day after the Super Bowl and 1 million incremental page views over a 24-hour period. Last year's spot was cited by analysts as one of the best at "driving business results and engagement," Sharples said in announcing that the company would advertise during Sunday's broadcast.

A Super Bowl ad hits most major demographics, from soccer moms to affluent executives, said Advertising Age's Steinberg. "(It's) a very broad-based audience, and you reach all kinds of niche groups as part of the mass."

This article was reported by Laurie Kulikowski for TheStreet.