It’s time for that annual rite of marketing self-flagellation, otherwise known as the Super Bowl.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 1/28, 4:00 p.m.) Detroit. Clearing the decks after the Detroit Auto Show is always a good thing to do. After the orchestrated image-wrangling and the obligatory statistics-laden car intro speeches (not to mention the endless pontificating going on in the city at the various pseudo events so desperate for gravitas that it’s almost painful to watch), it’s a good idea to just walk away and go sit in a quiet room somewhere and really think about what just happened.
As in, did we really learn anything? As opposed to enduring what qualified as just another expertly rendered smoke-and-mirror session, for starters? And who did the most talking to themselves, as opposed to really showing the assembled multitudes in the media something worth considering or talking about? Better yet, what has really changed in the biz, after all of the strutting and mumbling down at Cobo Hall?
I can answer those questions in order: Are you kidding? No. Most everyone. Not Much.
But if we pressed the reset button for this business right now, today, what would be different?
I can answer that one too: Not Much, plus the car companies’ Super Bowl advertising.
To say that I am underwhelmed about car advertising and the Super Bowl is an understatement. It’s plainly obvious that this business takes itself entirely too seriously, and most of the players at the auto companies are so all-consumed with establishing the fundamental veracity of their assorted Belchfire 8s – and are so absolutely convinced that the TV viewing public feels exactly the same way – that they inevitably embarrass themselves more often than not on what is this country’s largest media stage.
Why? Because automotive marketers have a hard time with the concept that the world doesn’t revolve around them (big surprise), and since they eat, sleep and breathe the business, they make the fatal error of assuming that everyone else out in ConsumerVille cares in exactly the same way.
And of course that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As a matter of fact the car companies’ ability to annoy the consumer public can be huge, and whatever car company marketing executives thought they would get consumers to believe about their cars it’s possible that the exact opposite may occur unless they hit exactly the right notes.
And the Super Bowl happens to be the most brutal media environment there is, a cacophony of cheese-ball humor and nonsensical blather polished to an eye-popping sheen, mixed in with blatant tugs on the heartstrings with a dollop of pathos thrown in for good measure, just to make sure everyone’s paying attention. And there are actual messages and marketing points in all of it too.
Unfortunately, the consumer response is one akin to being in ancient Rome, with an immediate thumbs up or down depending, to a large degree, on whether the game is worth watching, the snacks and drinks are decent, and it made them laugh out loud.
Are there exceptions to this view? Certainly. There are always exceptions and I will mention some of those in this column. (This Chevrolet spot from last year, for one.) But it’s clear that the typical auto company mindset – marketing or otherwise – has a difficult time stepping up to the media arena of the Super Bowl. Why? Because unlike their monotone lectures (aka speeches) to the assembled media at auto shows, they can’t control the environment and they can’t control the media playing field, and it drives them absolutely c-r-a-z-y. And for that reason and others (if the spot is worth a shit or not, for starters), it’s also difficult for them to come away unscathed.
So how is it going this year? Well, the now-mandatory pre-game “leaks” (at least for some automakers) of the Super Bowl spots are coming fast and furious this week and are a calculated attempt at generating more buzz for their respective models and/or brands, before and after the game. The social media conceit has demanded this change, and marketers from across the spectrum have bought into this idea, hook, line and sinker.
More on that later, but for instance, we’re continuing to see Mercedes-Benz, struggling for, oh, easily the tenth year in a row to come up with a smaller car for this market that people actually want to buy. They touted the new CLA – which was shown privately to the media before the Detroit show – but afterward I heard the same comments from the media and dealers alike. As in, it looks great on paper and not bad in the flesh, but are they capable of marketing it with at least a modicum of savvy? Even the dealers I ran across who were quite optimistic about the CLA, at least in terms of the price point and the idea of it anyway, wouldn’t commit to anything beyond that. How is that any different from the last decade, especially after the company’s disastrous smart car fantasy?
Well, super model Kate Upton is what’s different, at least that’s what Mercedes marketeers are hoping. The German automaker is using this tongue-n-cheek teaser to tout the new CLA in its Super Bowl ad buy, which will also feature Upton. I would classify this as a giant “whatever” at best. No, change that. It’s just flat-out stupid, but if I embarked on a jag about stupid car advertising we’d be here all day.
And VW will continue on its quest of conveying “The Power of German Engineering” in a shiny happy tone. You can watch the pre-sell spot (with Jimmy Cliff) for the game here and then watch the actual Super Bowl commercial here. Neither one of the spots has even a fraction of the power that this spot had for VW. Or this one from last year’s game, by the way. But hey, they want to be on the big game and they’re clearly running out of ideas, so the tepid effort this year is what we’re left with.
As the perpetual coming luxury-performance brand, Audi is always willing to participate in the fray, both on the track and off, and on TV too. And its new Super Bowl spot indicates that they don’t plan on shying away from the white-hot stage of the biggest media event of the year anytime soon (Audi is now appearing for the sixth straight year on the game broadcast). It pretty well defines Audi as the luxury-performance image leader with its confidence, swagger and a little bit of whimsy, and it’s consistent with everything they do. (And it’s light-years better than last year’s decidedly weak effort too.)
Kia aims to entertain on the Super Bowl yet again with its march-to-a-different-Korean-drummer market positioning. Kia is the edgier Korean auto player as opposed to the more buttoned-up Hyundai. But Hyundai will have its usual brace of commercials on the game as well.
And to give you an idea as to the extent of the hand-wringing that goes on with these manufacturers when they attempt to explain themselves before the game, this is what Toyota has to say before their commercial appears on the Super Bowl: “Embodying the modern, stylish and smart characteristics of the all-new RAV4, Toyota’s new ‘Wish Granted’ commercial starring Kaley Cuoco will make its broadcast debut on Feb. 3. The star of CBS hit show ‘The Big Bang Theory’ will appear granting the wishes of a family in unexpected and creative ways during one of the biggest sporting and advertising events of the year. Cuoco’s comedic chops made her a perfect partner in bringing the RAV4 Genie character to life.”
See what I mean? Think the Super Bowl audience will take away from the commercial that the all-new RAV4 is modern, stylish and smart? We shall see, won’t we?
And even the Lincoln Motor Company will participate on the Super Bowl broadcast, with two individual 30-second commercials. One, which will luxuriate in the warm embrace of Jimmy Fallon and his Twitter Nation followers, the other being a compelling product spot, straight up. For the record, the social media spot for Lincoln draws input from Tweeters regaling the Twitterverse with their favorite road trip stories, while Lincoln’s ad agency – HudsonRouge in New York – along with some of Fallon’s writers, culled the best spots for consideration. Then HudsonRouge mashed them together in a script, which lands in short form on the game, and which will continue in much longer form on Lincoln’s website and on various social media outposts.
It remains to be seen whether or not the singular impact of a 60-second commercial was diluted by Lincoln’s decision to split its appeal between new and older media constituencies, but even if the only takeaway for the audience is that Lincoln is back in the fray, then the mission will have to be considered accomplished, from their perspective.
Before I wrap things up this week, we have provided links to some of the Super Bowl spots in this column, before they run on the game. As I mentioned earlier, the social media conceit has clearly demanded this change, and marketers from across the spectrum have bought into this idea, hook, line and sinker.
There are two schools of thought on the subject, as you might have guessed. On the one hand you’ll hear talk of advertisers “maximizing the impact” of their advertising buys through use of social media while engaging consumers in multiple platforms before, during and after the game, so that they can’t escape the message, whatever it may be.
On the other hand there’s a school of thought that the element of surprise is much more impactful than teasing the spots in the run up to the game, that you can unveil the spot to maximum impact for the first time on the Super Bowl broadcast itself, and then run with the considerable buzz afterward.
This is a decidedly minority view given the frenzied social media world we live in, but it’s one I firmly believe in.
The best example of this?
The impact of the “Imported from Detroit” spot (featuring Eminem) from Fiat-Chrysler two years ago was stunning and immediate, because it was flawlessly executed and no one saw it coming.
And last year’s spot from Fiat-Chrysler, “Halftime in America,” with Clint Eastwood – though excruciatingly dreadful, what with Marchionne’s Italian posse having the temerity to lecture us Americans on how to be American – was still able to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time for the Auburn Hills contingent, garnering tremendous buzz after the game.
And guess what? Fiat-Chrysler has not uttered a peep about this year’s spot, only that they will be present and accounted for on the game.
And it’s the one thing that Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois, Fiat-Chrysler’s image maestro, and I can agree on.
If it were my call, I would tell my automotive PR operatives to stand down and alert the company’s social media minions to be at the ready to do their thing, but no one would see or talk about the spot until it ran on the game.
I’d go with the element of surprise at every opportunity.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.