By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Yes, it was the wrong call at the wrong time in the biggest football game of the year – maybe the worst call in NFL history as several esteemed NFL pundits have gone on record as saying - but since this isn’t a football oriented website (although here’s a little-known fact: I’ve thought about transforming it into one more than once), I will focus my column this week on the auto advertising shown during the Super Bowl.
First of all, for those of you who have never actually worked in advertising – particularly the creative end of the business – it is one of the most challenging pursuits out there. Yes, it can be rewarding, both personally and professionally, but those rewards – at least on the personal side – can be intermittent and fleeting, at best.
The thing about the advertising business is that you’re only as good as your last piece of work, and the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude permeates the client/agency relationship at all times. This stems from the fact that the never-ending story arc between auto companies and their ad agencies is that when things are going well, the auto companies insist that their agency folk are their true marketing “partners,” and when things are going bad – as in, when the client screws up the timing of a product launch, or their products well and truly suck vis-a-vis the competition - then it’s inevitably the agency’s fault somehow and the agency is demoted from “partner” status to just being a “supplier.”
I’ll be right upfront in saying that there’s level of mistrust between an advertising agency and its auto company client that rides just below the surface, and at any moment things can go from being somewhat cordial to prickly in oh, like a nanosecond. I’m telling you this in order to give you at least a glimpse into the world in which this work that you see on television is created. It’s an up at dawn pride swallowing siege for an ad agency (to quote from Jerry McGuire), and it’s a constant battle between the talented and those who insist on getting in the way of goodness – and sometimes greatness - on both sides of the aisle.
When the agency types and the clients do happen to alight on a great idea and battle the labyrinthian process that threatens to derail that idea at any moment – and make no mistake, that process is probably the most intractable and entrenched when it comes to auto advertising – and it finally reaches the point of being produced and getting on the air, let alone getting on the air in the biggest marketing event of the year - the Super Bowl - it is quite an achievement. Because legions of spineless weasels, bureaucratic trolls and other intransigents on the client side who want a piece of the action so that they can put their “stamp” on it are formidable, and their pitchforks are raised in anger often enough to be at the very least obstacles, if not outright spoilers of an original idea.
But all that being said that doesn’t mean that the resulting effort will be worth it in the end, because no matter how well intentioned, sometimes agencies and clients conspire to do stupid things and make bad decisions. And when they do it on the Super Bowl, it is magnified to an incredible degree – Sunday night’s game was the most-watched show in television history, by the way - and it can be simply disastrous.
I am not going to comment on every auto ad on Sunday night’s broadcast, because only a few ads were worth talking about, while others were so eminently forgettable that they barely deserve mention at all. So, here we go.
First off, I see the homers in the local media around these parts positively gushed over FCA’s Super Bowl effort, and even though that is their wont (they so crave access to The Great Sergio and Olivier “I’m a genius just ask me” Francois that they can’t bring themselves to do it any other way), I will be glad to provide levity to the proceedings.
First of all, the Jeep “Beautiful Lands” spot (watch it here) for the new Renegade was all beautifully shot and internationally inclusive, but to foist off Woody Guthrie’s classic American folk song, “This Land Is Your Land” to launch an international marketing push for the smallest Jeep was both insulting and disingenuous. And to make matters worse, they were beaten to the punch by The North Face, which used Guthrie’s classic song - and to much greater effect, I might add - for its “Never Stop Exploring” campaign, which debuted at the end of last October.
So, despite all the Internet fan boys who are already canonizing the Renegade as the “Next Little Big Thing” and despite the fact that Francois seems to get a pass just for showing up so that we can all bask in his brilliance, I give this effort a definitive and emphatic “D” for three very specific reasons: 1. Using inappropriate music. 2. Not having an original idea. And 3. For the unbridled arrogance that assumed that spending a boatload on location filming would automatically result in advertising glory. Guess what? It didn’t.
Next up was the Fiat 500X “Blue Pill” spot, which was only mildly amusing and which manages to expose FCA for using borrowed interest – from itself – to come up with a Super Bowl spot for its latest attempt at justifying the Fiat brand’s existence in this country. The spot has been on YouTube for months, but it was recycled for the big game. The spot dragged on – it not only felt way too long, it was way too long – and yes, there were a few yucks, but does anyone out there actually recall what the spot was for? I would venture to guess not many. A lackluster effort, at best, but I’ll give them a hard “C” because at the end of the day it was a decent attempt. It just wasn’t all that special.
Finally, the FCA “Wisdom” spot for Dodge was at least worth watching. Although FCA’s recent campaign to toast Dodge for being around for 100 years has grown tedious (and I mean excruciatingly so), at least this spot was entertaining, with the elderly dispensing advice on things they’ve learned along the way. Make no mistake, it wasn’t great, but it was at least worth watching, which is saying something given the overall lackluster quality of the commercials on the game. I’ll give it a “B” as it is the only one of the three FCA spots that actually merits more than a mention, in terms of effectiveness.
There were other car commercials of course. BMW decided that the novelty of having Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric appear for the i3 electric car would at least be watchable, which it was. But that wasn’t the case for Toyota, which presented marginal work on behalf of the Camry. “How Great I Am” used a voice over from a classic Muhammed Ali speech and featured Paralympic medalist and “Dancing With The Stars” competitor Amy Purdy, which was all well and good but it had absolutely nothing to do with the Camry and there was no connection to be made, either, even if you squinted real hard. Every year it seems that Toyota tries to inject some life into the mundane Camry, and every year they come up well and truly short.
Toyota also presented “My Bold Dad," which was an obvious attempt at tugging at the heart strings and was yet another example of marketing cotton candy, in that it was instantly forgettable. And the Lexus work was even more so. (We’re not even going to bother providing a link to the Lexus work, because it simply isn’t worth the effort.) Memo to the Toyota and Lexus agencies: Are your clients aware that you’re phoning it in for the most part? Even scarier is the notion that the body of work presented was actually approved by upper management. But then again Toyota's management mentality here in the U.S. is completely driven by the fact that it is obsessed with burnishing its reputation with American consumers as being part of the American fabric. Even though it is so obvious when it is trying too hard. It appears that Toyota's U.S. management is even tired of the whole charade at times, and it shows. This just in: Just showing up on the Big Game because you feel compelled to be there is not reason enough to actually do it. But at least the Toyota-Lexus work was not the most offensive thing on the game (more later).
Speaking of overly long, the spot for Nissan entitled “With Dad” was not only tedious, I would venture to guess there was no positive impact for Nissan in the least. Much was made of the fact that Nissan was returning to the game for the first time in eighteen years, but the manufacturer wasn’t missed in the least in the interim and after this unremarkable effort, perhaps they should give it another eighteen years before they deign to come back. The enthusiast blogosphere was all amped-up because Nissan’s new endurance racing challenger – the GTR-LM Nismo - was revealed in the spot (more on this in The Line), but really? What else happened here? I get the fact that the subject of “Dads” received a lot of attention during this game and that the “racer” Dad in the spot was making an attempt at balance in his life (using Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” didn’t help Nissan's cause either, ugh), but the net-net of it was a nonsensical head-scratcher and another complete waste of time and money. Do you remember what Nissan model the spot was actually for? I didn’t think so.
Let’s face it, this is yet another example of Nissan marketing people being completely out of touch with reality, but then again that seems to somehow suit them down there in Franklin, Tennessee, so we should expect more of it, I presume. The gang at Nissan appears to sell cars in spite of themselves, and it remains one of the enduring mysteries of the modern age, as far as I’m concerned.
And then there’s Mercedes-Benz. I’ve railed against these bumblers for years now, and even though the names and faces may change, Mercedes-Benz USA – and their equally challenged German counterparts - has a remarkable propensity for keeping their streak of out-of-touch marketing cluelessness intact year after year.
The spot, entitled “Fable” was, believe it or not, attempting to sell the American consumer public on the goodness of the Mercedes-AMG GT S, a $100,000+ competitor to the Porsche 911 Carrera S. To do that, the brain trust at Mercedes-Benz North America and their ad agency – Merkley & Partners – decided that a remake of Aesop’s “Tortoise and the Hare” fable, which would combine animation with real footage of the car at the end, would be exactly what the doctor ordered to market this machine. (And mind you, this is a machine that is aimed at such a rarefied segment of automotive real estate that it was irrelevant to 95 percent of the viewing audience anyway.)
I worked on many image campaigns over my automotive advertising career and make no mistake, the argument that this was an image play for Mercedes doesn’t hold water. This spot was as far away from an image campaign as you can possibly get, because it had absolutely no connection to the brand. As in none.
And it stunk as a product campaign as well, because it not only had no connection to the car they were actually trying to sell, it completely trivialized the role of the Mercedes-AMG GT S in the Mercedes-Benz lineup. In fact this spot was so nonsensical and such a monumental waste of time and money that it was simply unconscionable and embarrassing to contemplate. A big fat “F” is much deserved here. And if there were a grade lower I would award it. As I’ve said many times before, no one has done less with more in this business than the marketing brainiacs at Mercedes-Benz, and this company’s latest effort on the Super Bowl was more evidence of that.
The best car spot on this year’s Super Bowl for pure advertising effectiveness? Right before kickoff there was a brief sound of static and then the screen went blank, momentarily causing the collective viewing audience to say, WTF? After a brief moment of screen blackness, it was revealed to be a commercial for the new Chevrolet Colorado, touting the midsize pickup’s 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity, which would allow live-streaming of the game in case of such an incident. Simple. And simply brilliant. As a matter of fact Chevrolet deserves kudos for the entire Colorado TV package, as it’s inventive and fresh, especially compared to their usual level of mediocrity. And judging by what transpired on this year’s marketing Super Bowl, that’s saying something.
And I have one last point about this Super Bowl of marketing. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll probably say it many more times before we stop creating this website, but the idea that showing the advertising before the game somehow spreads out the cost and the effectiveness is pure unmitigated bullshit.
This notion is held dear by legions of so-called marketing “geniuses” out there and it’s simply laughable and doesn’t hold water. They’re so afraid of the amount of money that they’re spending on the game that they think if they wrap some convoluted social marketing campaign strategy around the expenditure, they will maximize the effectiveness and no one will question what they’re doing and why, because let’s not forget, accountability and marketing “geniuses” don’t always go together.
Mercedes debuted its Super Bowl spot on Ellen two weeks before the game if you can imagine. Yes, really. Even Budweiser succumbed to it this year by revealing its “Puppy-Clydesdale” sequel, which was very disappointing, even though it clearly was the most popular spot on the game.
The element of surprise for an unexpected ad on a major marketing event such as the Super Bowl cannot be underestimated. It maximizes impact, it makes the spot more memorable, and the post game buzz is considerable.
I’ve said this before too: There’s only one auto marketing chief currently at work that understands this concept implicitly. And even though this wasn’t one of Olivier Francois’s best Super Bowl efforts, and even though I’ve criticized him relentlessly for being such a self-promoting fop, he gets high concept advertising on major marketing events like no one else, and it’s refreshing to see.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.