By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I am glad that the fantastic and historic Super Bowl game itself was the focus of the night on Sunday (well, that and Lady Gaga’s performance), because the advertising landscape on the TV broadcast was its usual mishmash that ran the gamut between the sublime and the inexcusably ridiculous. In fact, it’s clear to me that too many of the advertisers not only lost their focus, but some even lost their way completely.
I am not going to write about my favorite non-automotive commercials in general (okay, I will mention three, Bai antioxidant drinks with Christopher Walken and Justin Timberlake; the Squarespace spot with John Malkovich; and the Budweiser spot, “Born the Hard Way”*), and I’m not even going to attempt to mention all of the auto spots that appeared on the game, because life is too short and most of them don’t deserve mentioning.
I will say that the move to social “statement” advertising is not my favorite development. In fact, I think it’s dangerous when advertisers try to project an image or a cause that’s not exactly accurate as to who they really are, because inevitably there is a very real possibility that it will come back to bite them in the ass, but good. I knew the ad pendulum was swinging in this direction prior to the game broadcast and I was cringing about what might be presented. And sure enough, most of it proved to be tedious, just as I expected.
Let’s start with the Audi spot “Daughter," which garnered all sorts of accolades. Let’s be clear here: Was the message important? Yes, of course, how could equal pay for women ever be anything but? Or ever construed as being a bad thing? And the spot was beautifully written, shot and produced as well. But Audi’s move was beyond disingenuous, at best, because the company - starting with the predominantly male makeup of the German VW Group’s Board of Directors on down - cannot prove that in fact it actually pays women equally to men for the same work performed.
Let me say that again: It cannot prove it (the company tried to quell grumbling on twitter after the spot ran, but failed miserably) and therefore they are walking a very fine line, at best, starting with the very real possibility of pissing off their own female employees, who know the reality to be otherwise. In short, Audi needed to get its own house in order and think long and hard before even considering a spot like this, because the gravitas – when exposed – comes up empty.
But then again I am not surprised that Audi’s U.S. management and marketing operatives bought into this spot, because the company has been trending in a “holier-than-thou” direction in the tone of their advertising over the last several years. In Audi’s case, this has taken the form of a potentially lethal combination of touchy-feely mixed in with a preachy arrogance that suggests that they know what’s best for all mankind. It’s gratingly offensive when you give it more than a cursory thought, and what may resonate in the immediate flash of a weepily sensitive Super Bowl spot quickly dissipates in a vacuous cloud of marketing cotton candy upon further review. Needless to say, I found the Audi spot to be a jaded, misguided – and again, disingenuous – effort.
Onward. The Buick ad, “Not So Pee Wee Football," again hammers home the brand’s “That’s a Buick?” theme. Not as offensive as last year’s Super Bowl spot and only mildly amusing, it is still burdened with one of the most annoying music tracks in recent ad history. And let’s not forget that the entire tone of the campaign is smarmy, apologetic and tedious. When do we get past the “That’s a Buick?” shtick? How about “Why a Buick?” for starters, as in why should we even remotely give a shit about this brand? I keep waiting for Buick marketing operatives to come to their senses, but I realize that this is a waste of time, because they actually believe that they have it goin’ on, which is frightening to think about.
This is strictly amateurish, minor league stuff here. To pretend that it’s anything but is a flat-out insult to some of the genuinely excellent work presented on Sunday’s game. But let’s face it, as long as Mary Barra and “Dan I Am” Ammann insist that GM doesn’t need a Chief Marketing Officer, we will continue to see Buick marketing operatives flail about pretending that they know what they’re doing. A giant, steaming Bowl of Not Good, as we like to say.
And finally, there were the Alfa Romeo spots for the Giulia sedan, “Riding Dragons,” “Dear Predictable” and “Mozzafiato.” On the one hand, as an enthusiast, sure it’s great to see old classic Alfas (which have absolutely zero to do with the modern ones, by the way), savor fast driving performance shots, and hear jacked-up engine sounds and emotional, evocative copy. But on the other, this such was a monumental, head-shaking waste of time and money it was borderline criminal.
I get the strategy here, which is that FCA is selling Jeeps and Ram Trucks hand-over-fist for the most part, so why bother advertising those products on the Super Bowl? Instead, the decision was made to go for broke and take the first meaningful steps in launching Alfa Romeo as a mainstream brand here. Except that it doesn’t wash. Not one bit of it. Why? Because Alfa Romeo remains Sergio Marchionne’s most egregious Folly. The industry’s Carpetbagging Mercenary in Chief steadfastly clings to the ludicrous notion that Alfa Romeo actually has a real chance of becoming a mainstream competitor to Audi. Think about that for a moment, because every time I write it I have to pause, take a deep breath and consider the abject absurdity of that line of totally irrational and delusional thinking.
Remember, FCA is a company that has demonstrated repeatedly that it is incapable of actually launching an Alfa Romeo product of any kind in this market (sorry, the minuscule numbers of the 4C sports car don’t count), let alone 70,000 of them by 2018 (this was Marchionne’s last grandiose prediction on when the Alfa magic would really take hold, but even the FCA dealers stopped believing him eighteen months ago). Not only does FCA seem incapable of building Alfas with any consistency or pace, they’re unlikely to be able to build them well, either, given FCA’s dismal track record when it comes to quality. Yet here they were pissing away a ton of money on the Super Bowl for a product that is a relentless nonstarter.
It doesn’t matter that certain auto journalists have been gushing with praise for the Giulia, because this just in: A handful of journalists plied with a free trip, booze and food to spend time driving some handbuilt cars does not a movement make. Again, whatever plans FCA may have for the Alfa brand are inconsequential and meaningless, because the company is simply devoid of even a shred of credibility when it comes to anything having to do with Alfa Romeo.
And this orchestrated pissing away of cash for cash’s sake on the Super Bowl couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for Sergio by the way, because FCA’s own dealers have indicated that they have plainly had it with the maniacal Marchionne. They’ve stopped believing Marchionne’s empty Alfa promises and are resigned to the fact that the only person on earth who thinks that Alfa will be anything more than an asterisk in this market is The Empty Dictator himself.
Not only that, beyond all of this Alfa Romeo mayhem, when FCA informed its dealers at the recent NADA convention that it planned to add an additional 380 dealers, it went over like a lead balloon. Here was a company with too many dealers to begin with, and now Marchionne wants to add more? To hear some dealers talk about it, the idea was unconscionable and pathetic, and that was coming from the ones that were still giving Marchionne the benefit of the doubt. The rest? They would be thrilled if Marchionne went back to Italy and never came back.
Marchionne has long since exceeded his “sell by” date, and needless to say, even FCA’s own dealers have zero confidence in The Great Sergio’s bluster. And Alfa Romeo is caught in the middle of this scrum, with no place to go but down, and it’s really too bad. Do Alfa cars have potential? Maybe, on paper at least, but in order for that to happen a completely different set of players would have to be enlisted to take over the brand, because Marchionne and his minions are simply incapable of getting it together enough to pull it off.
And finally, two spots worth mentioning were “Yearbooks” for Honda, and “Hero’s Journey” for Kia. The Honda spot was exceedingly clever, although tying the idea to the new CRV at the end was a dubious proposition, at best. And having Melissa McCarthy bring her star power to Kia worked well too. I would rate these two spots as pure image plays. No heavy political agendas or lecturing involved, but very entertaining, which is, in the end, exactly how it should be.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
*Editor-In-Chief's Note: Some readers have directed their woefully misinformed comments at me suggesting that I favored only the "political" spots on the Super Bowl game broadcast because I mentioned the Budweiser spot. Let me be very clear here; any notion that the Budweiser spot was cranked-up in response to the current administration's stance on immigration is beyond absurd. It takes months, not weeks, but months of strategizing, creative exploratory work, and finally, weeks of production preparation and execution to bring a commercial like "Born the Hard Way" to life. The fact that the story of the early coming together of Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser happened to resonate in the current climate was pure coincidence. It is a great spot the pays homage to the heritage of the brand, one that's superbly crafted and executed and exactly what compelling advertising should look and feel like. Over and out. -PMD