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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Bud Light has Arnold Schwarzenegger playing ping-pong. Jaguar has Ben Kingsley doing a James Bond villain. And Toyota is using the Muppets to peddle SUVs. We're talking about this year's Super Bowl commercials. At a reported $4 million a spot, only the mightiest corporations can afford to advertise in the big game. Well, there is one exception. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that this year, one small business will get a coveted slot for free.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The promotion is called Small Business, Big Game, and it's a little like "American Idol" for little entrepreneurs. Intuit, the company that owns software tools like Quicken and Turbo Tax, is the sponsor. They're giving a professionally produced ad on the Super Bowl to the small business with, among other things, the most inspiring story. To get the word out, Intuit recruited sportscaster and former football coach Jimmy Johnson.

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JIMMY JOHNSON: What will over a hundred million people see? The first ever small business commercial on the big game. Who's with me?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Yeah.

BLAIR: Intuit says some 15,000 small businesses entered the contest, from an organic ice cream truck in Los Angeles to a pet spa in Ashburn, Virginia. Small companies are among Intuit's primary customers and it wants more. Heather McLellan is Intuit's director of corporate communications.

HEATHER MCLELLAN: Our concept is all centered around the fact that small businesses are the unsung heroes of our country. So the whole idea was how do we put them on the world stage in a way that's never been done before, and that led us to the concept of a commercial on the big game.

BLAIR: To be eligible, businesses had to have no more than 50 employees. Contestants posted online videos on a special website, telling their stories and urging people to vote for them. Ultimately, four finalists were selected: a pet food business in North Carolina called Barley Labs, a natural compost company in Idaho called Dairy Poop, a girls' toymaker in California, and an organic egg farm in Wrenshall, Minnesota.

LUCIE AMUNDSEN: I can't walk down the street without people asking me if we've won.

BLAIR: Lucie Amundsen of Locally Laid Eggs is thrilled they've got a one-in-four shot at something they could never afford on their own: a commercial during the Super Bowl. Plus, she says, they've been getting a ton of free media coverage from local fans.

AMUNDSEN: We had lawn signs, homemade signs in storefronts. We had a free billboard.

BLAIR: So in the same way "American Idol" can catapult a singer to stardom, the winner of Intuit's contest could see its business explode. And what's in it for Intuit? Advertising expert Barbara Lippert writes a column for mediapost.com.

BARBARA LIPPERT: I think it's a really good strategy because when you hear the word Intuit, you have no idea what it is.

BLAIR: Lippert says not only is Intuit getting its name out there, but it's helping potential customers grow.

LIPPERT: And hoping that they will become huge customers once they become huge businesses. So it's a really good bet.

BLAIR: Now, there have been some hiccups in this promotional contest. The marijuana advocacy group NORML entered...

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Legalization.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Can.

BLAIR: ...and did extremely well in the public voting. But they didn't make it to the second round. Why not? Heather McLellan says their panel of judges valued businesses over causes.

MCLELLAN: The second round, when we got to the 20, it was based on a number of criteria. Some of those criteria, as you can imagine, are things like, does it represent the Intuit brand?

BLAIR: Another snafu: The toymaker GoldieBlox did make it to the final four but got involved in a legal battle when they adapted a Beastie Boys' song...

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) Girls, you think you know what we want. Girls.

BLAIR: But GoldieBlox never asked the band's permission. Intuit says they are not getting involved. The winner of Small Business, Big Game will be announced two days before the Super Bowl on January 31st. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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BLOCK: This is NPR.

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