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The Big Game: Car Commercials Compete For Marketing Magic on the Super Bowl

February 3, 2017 Events, In the News, Reviews

The Big Game: Car Commercials Compete

For Marketing Magic on the Super Bowl

At The Revs Institute we connect the past and future of the automobile — a road that runs through the present and veers into technology, policy, personalities, motor sport, history, design and culture.  One of each year’s most visible, if unlikely, car-culture events is the Super Bowl, where automakers air commercials to make a statement about their vehicles…and themselves.  We asked Brian Steinberg, television editor for Variety magazine, to preview and critique the car commercials on this Sunday’s game.

By Brian Steinberg

When the first big car commercial of Super Bowl LI debuts this Sunday, viewers might notice what they aren’t seeing.

Ford Motor Co. has commissioned a 90-second commercial that shows scenes of people mired in tough situations: stranded at sea; slowed down by a locked door; caught in traffic. “No one likes being stuck,” says actor Byran Cranston, who serves as the commercial’s narrator. “That’s why Ford is developing new ways to help you move through life” — such as bike sharing, ride-sharing and self-driving cars.

This is a Super Bowl car commercial? Where is the loving look at the vehicle’s velvety interior, the shot of a Mustang cruising down the highway to the strains of a popular rock song? Yes, there are glimpses of Ford’s vehicles – some sketched from the future — but the usual elements are gone. In their place: A new way to see the company. “There’s this universal desire to be free and help people move freely,” noted Chantel Lenard, director of U.S. marketing for Ford. The company wants to present itself as a leader in creating future high-tech mobility even while it’s reaping most of its current profits from selling fuel-thirsty pickup trucks and SUVs.

If there were a perfect time to break away from the onslaught of “show the metal” car ads that usually clog up the Super Bowl roster, it’s now. The Super Bowl has become a traffic jam as a lengthy list of automakers — U.S. and foreign — take to its commercial breaks in an effort to sell themselves as much as their wares. In the last two Super Bowls, however, the number of cars cruising the big game’s commercial highway, so to speak, has dwindled. In 2014, 11 different manufacturers drove to the Super Bowl, reports Kantar Media, which tracks Super Bowl ad spending. In the last two outings, that number has fallen to nine.

And in 2017, there could be even less. As of Thursday, only seven car manufacturers had unveiled their intention to join the commercial roster. Toyota’s decision to stay out of the Super Bowl because it’s launching a new Camry later in the year is one factor for the smaller car pool.

Meanwhile, there are some important asterisks in this Sunday’s Super Bowl car clash. It isn’t clear whether Fiat Chrysler will air a commercial.  But the company, which revels in making marketing splashes, might suit up for the game at the last minute. And Ford’s participation is a matter of dispute for purists. As an advertiser in the pre-kick-off slot, it’s paying significantly less than in-game sponsors.

Others will test the balance between pictures of cars and depictions of crazy. A teaser for Honda’s commercial features comedian Steve Carrell in a yearbook photo, not an automobile. Other celebrities also will turn up in the commercial. “We gave just enough time on the car that everyone can enjoy the design of the new CR-V,” says Susie Rossick, Honda’s assistant vice president of national and regional automotive marketing, but “we have to engage the consumer and keep them interested in the spot.”

Kia sprinkles five brief glimpses of its Kia Nero into an ad focused more intently on the antics of comic actress Melissa McCarthy. Lexus intersperses shots of its LC 500 with scenes of dance moves by Charles “Lil Buck” Riley. General Motors’ Buick devotes mere seconds to shots of its cars in favor of antics from Cam Newton and Miranda Kerr. Audi spends a minute on a scene of a young girl winning a go-cart race and talking to viewers about — hold on here — pay equity between men and women, a cause that, however worthy, isn’t obviously connected to selling cars. “Progress,” reads the copy at the end of the ad, “is for everyone.”

The simple fact is that when it comes to the Super Bowl, we remember surprises and delights. The products are secondary. Auto enthusiasts may recall their first glimpse of a particular model,  but the general public fondly recalls ads that shock or entrance them, or play havoc with the format.

Car commercials certainly have done this in Super Bowls past, for better or worse. General Motors in 2007 ran a Super Bowl spot that depicted a yellow assembly-line robot jumping off a bridge in an apparent act of self-destruction. GM agreed after the Big Game to edit the scene out of the ad after suicide-prevention groups complained.

Fiat Chrysler more recently struck chords with two-minute ads exhorting Americans to get back on their feet after the crippling recession of 2008 and 2009. In 2011, on Super Bowl XLV, Chrysler famously touted its cars as “Imported from Detroit” — in a commercial featuring rapper Eminem and his song “Lose Yourself” — to highlight the company’s role in creating American jobs. A year later, Clint Eastwood told viewers on behalf of Chrysler that it was “halftime in America” and prodded the nation to get back on the playing field.

What do any of these commercials have to do with selling cars? About as much as Apple’s famous “1984” commercial  had to do with selling computers. The message was about saving mankind from conformity; it aired during Super Bowl XVIII (in 1984, of course) when Apple was launching the Macintosh computer.

Sometimes, the Super Bowl is less about selling a product and more about getting the consumer to pay attention to what the advertiser has to say. If the message is right, the dollars will flow later.


Brian Steinberg has covered television for Variety since 2013.  He drives a Subaru, a decision driven more by the needs of his six-year-old than by any commercial on the Super Bowl.

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