February 1, 2012
Auto companies and the Super Bowl? It’s a dance that’s fraught with peril.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 1/31, 11:30 a.m.) Detroit. Well, that wonderful time of year has arrived in AdLand, where normally rational individuals involved in the creative process at select advertising agencies across the country are going absolutely crazy while in pursuit of the ultimate ad guy/ad girl dream - creating The One Great TV Commercial that will seal their fate as certified ad geniuses for the rest of their careers.
Very few reach that lofty goal, by the way, because the High-Octane Truth be told there’s a lot of “B” grade work on the big broadcast. And once the initial euphoria of the Big Game subsides the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of merely average to not very good work that ends up being aired when it comes right down to it.
But besides being the NFL Championship game, there’s no question that this event is clearly the Super Bowl of advertising, too, and that means anything can happen when in pursuit of glory. What seemed like a good idea at the time can fall to pieces in production, or it can come together nicely. It all depends on whether the variables involved – the basic creative idea, the production company, the director, the casting, the locations, the performances, the digital effects, etc., etc., etc. – can be turned into a seamlessly executed and fabulous piece of work. Or not.
There are so many variables in the mix, even in this digitally correctible world we live in today, it’s no wonder that what seemed like a “can’t miss” idea way back when can be executed to a merely average level. And being merely average on the Super Bowl is not a value-added activity to say the least.
Add the auto companies to the mix and all of the things I’ve just mentioned can be exacerbated and ratcheted up even further.
Why? Because for the most part auto companies have no business being on the Super Bowl. There, I said it, but it’s true. Yes, there are a very few exceptions, but I’ll get to that a little bit later.
(And let me just emphasize at this point that as a longtime advertising industry veteran I can safely say that there are very few endeavors more ego-driven than the ad biz. There’s Hollywood and the music biz, of course, but after that the ad biz takes the cake. And most decisions on what will be produced and aired on the Super Bowl have everything to do with ego first, and rational thought second, just to be clear.)
What seems like a target-rich environment for most auto companies instead can become a minefield fraught with peril. And why is that, exactly? It’s for the same reasons that some (not all) auto executives can become derailed and lost in their own delusional thinking, which means that they repeatedly make the fundamental mistake of believing that what matters to them and what they obsess about and revolve their worlds around on a day-to-day basis matters to the outside world, when it clearly doesn’t. Not in the least, in fact.
We just got through seeing myriad examples of that at last month’s Detroit Auto Show, when we witnessed a parade of executives clearly immersed in their own delusions getting up before the media and boring them to death. Not that it’s totally ridiculous to think that these executives would actually do that, of course. After all, if you were immersed in your own little world 24/7, it would be extremely difficult not to get up and exclaim, “What I do and what we think about is important, dammit!” Especially when the assembled media is supposedly there to hang on your every word.
But take that same attitude to the Super Bowl? Uh, not so much. Let’s just say that things can go haywire, and fast.
First of all, the automotive executive mindset is ill equipped for what the Super Bowl demands. How so? Let’s review. What kind of spots resonate - and I mean really resonate - on the big broadcast? Well, humorous ones, for one thing. And when you have executives hell-bent on jamming their corporate missions down the nation’s throat, or trying to explain the nuances of their new Belchfire 16Z with Advanced Gizmo Array Detection, it leaves the viewers cold, if they haven’t already mentally turned the spot off in the first three seconds.
Last year, VW scored off the charts with the spot that had the little kid roaming around the house trying to summon The Force while in his Darth Vader costume. Only to have his father remote start his VW in the driveway as the kid stood in front of it, completely flabbergasting the kid and making the audience laugh and say awww. It was funny, it made you feel good about VW and people remembered it and talked about it. Bingo. Great spot.
Now if a typical auto executive were left to his or her own devices, that spot would have been a dissertation on some feature list and it would have left the audience comatose. Thank goodness that wasn’t the case.
This year, for instance, we have several automakers taking different paths. Honda is going all out with the actor Matthew Broderick reprising his role as a modern day Ferris Beuller, and it works nicely. And they even have Jerry Seinfeld (with a cameo by Jay Leno) jousting to be first in line for the 2015 Acura NSX. That works well too. Honda/Acura is basically nowhere right now in the market, a moribund, mere shadow of its former self with a sullied image to boot. They could have gone the “look at us” route, and jammed a “we’re relevant and important” positioning down the viewers’ throats. Instead, they wisely chose to make a splash wrapped around humorous entertainment rather than boring us all to death while insisting that they were back, or some such nonsense.
Audi, now a perennial Super Bowl advertiser, makes a rare misstep this year with a completely ridiculous and inane spot based around vampires and the automakers new LED headlights. The spot doesn’t hold a candle to the spot the automaker released a few weeks ago called “Ahab” featuring a tow truck driver in snowy climes talking about the elusive one he can never catch, an Audi Quattro. An obvious homage to “Moby Dick” it works wonderfully well. It’s engaging to watch and it makes its point subtly while actually requiring a modicum of intelligence from the viewer, which is refreshing in its own right given the “I’m an idiot, watch me” YouTube-driven culture we’ve devolved to.
Chevrolet has a brace of spots to display as well, my favorite (so far) being the “Graduate” who thinks he is being gifted a Camaro by his parents. Submitted from an independent filmmaker, it’s absolutely hilarious.
And yet on the other hand, GM, hell-bent on attaching Serious Credibility to its new Cadillac ATS is choosing to educate the Super Bowl audience on the famous Nurburgring Nordschleife race track (dubbed “the green hell” by Jackie Stewart) and how it played a role in the development of Cadillac’s new BMW 3 Series fighter. As an enthusiast I love this spot, of course, but would I run it on the Super Bowl? No way. The audience on that day will mentally turn that spot off and it will be instantly forgettable, and a giant waste of money as well.
There will be spots from Toyota, Hyundai/Kia and others but we’ll just have to wait and see if they resonate during the game or in the Monday morning aftermath review.
And I’m sure some of you will want to point out Chrysler’s “Eminem” spot from last year, one that didn’t rely on humor to make its point. It was well done, as I’ve said repeatedly, but the net-net of it other than making some of us feel good around here for oh, like about a minute, was what exactly? Another feather in Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois’s already overly laden cap? Yes, of course, because after all, that what he’s all about, right? But when the automaker recycled the spot in various guises throughout the year any of the original impact became lost in a mind-numbingly repetitive cadence that became tedious and excruciatingly painful to watch. I have never seen a more classic example of “going to the well one too many times” in my life. “The Genius” managed to accomplish the impossible: turn a singular great spot into a spot that made you change the channel. Nicely done. Not.
(I actually had Sergio’s PR guy tell me once that it took a bunch of Italians to define the Motor City for us poor denizens of Detroit. Oh really? My “Umitigated Bullshit” detector pegged on that one. And that said more than one could even imagine about the arrogance and attitude that’s pouring out of Auburn Hills these days. And here I thought the German execs from Mercedes-Benz during their time at Chrysler were the kings of arrogance. I will tell you this in absolute certainty: they don’t hold a candle to these carpetbagging interlopers. But I digress.)
The bottom line in this discussion? Auto executives traditionally take themselves far too seriously, and when they bring that attitude to the Super Bowl of advertising things don’t always go well.
If they stick to humor to tell their story on the big broadcast, or focus on making a good showing for their brand, then they have a fighting chance of at least leaving the viewer with a positive impression. If they can do that then I’d cautiously – and I mean cautiously - recommend that they play in the biggest media arena in this country, but then again only if the creative idea merits it.
But if they let their collective egos run rampant, and insist on burying the viewer in their usual media cocktail of details and minutiae that only they care about, well then, they need to stay far, far away. Which is why, for the most part, I recommend that automakers just skip the whole thing altogether.
We’ll see who gets it right – and horribly wrong - on Sunday.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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