Car Advertisers Make Bets on the Super Bowl (But Not About Who Wins)

By Auto Marketing InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: Car Advertisers Make Bets on the Super Bowl (But Not About Who Wins)

Ad time on CBS for Sunday's Super Bowl game between the Chiefs and Buccaneers is "virtually sold out," says the network, but it took a while. In 2020 the spots were gone by Thanksgiving, but in 2021 there was still as much as 20 percent unsold inventory in January. What gives? CBS charging $5.5 million for 30 seconds (with the creative costs extra) is one factor, but there's also some debate about what brands can and should be saying during the ongoing pandemic. And whether their money could be used in a more targeted way.

Anheuser-Busch, plus both Pepsi and Coke, are no-shows this year. Hyundai and Kia are non-advertisers, joining VW, Porsche and Audi, among many others. To find out what's going on, particularly in the automotive space, I talked to Lauren Donalson, senior director of national accounts at PureCars.

"Some brands are just saying the price tag is too rich," Donalson said. "What we've observed is that even the brands at the national level with the deepest pockets have learned from the changes in behavior over the last year. The world is different from a year ago."

Anheuser-Busch isn't advertising its Budweiser brand on the Super Bowl this year -- for the first time since 1983 -- and is instead donating the money it would have spent to vaccine relief. That gesture got the company a fair amount of free publicity.

But there's also the point that this is broadcasting in the literal sense of the word. I made this point in a recent piece about Polk and Ampersand pooling their automotive data on TV viewers to give advertisers powerful tools to target their ad spend. "There's no in-market targeting when buying a spot on the Super Bowl," Donalson said. "Advertisers know there are a lot of viewers, but they don't know how many of those consumers are in the market to actually buy a car. And if they do want to buy a car, are they considering your car?"

Donalson noted that Toyota is advertising on the Super Bowl, but marketing a car is not the message. "My guess is that the company will pivot to more of a warm message," she said. That proved prescient, because Toyota's 60-second ad for the second quarter was subsequently leaked and it showcases the emotional story of Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. Here's a look at it:

Also in is General Motors, which is eschewing the heart strings and going for the comedic -- with a point. Will Ferrell, Awkwafina and Saturday Night Live's Kenan Thompson were enlisted to make the point that Norway is beating the U.S. at EV adoption -- and America isn't going to stand for it. The spot reinforces the company's dramatic pivot to producing only electric cars after 2035. GM is also fielding a Cadillac spot. Here's the ad:

Ford is sticking with a pandemic message. "We're so close," the ad says. Let's stick together and "finish strong." Here's the ad:

Which approach is right, funny or inspiring? The New York Times points out, "Brands that decide on a somber approach risk reminding viewers of what they had hoped to escape for a few hours, and the ones that try to be funny could seem out of step." Jeep, the only other auto brand to advertise on this year's Super Bowl (as of this writing, anyway) isn't releasing its creative.

Let's make the point clear. Viewers like Super Bowl ads. According to a recent poll, only 15 percent of viewers said they'd want to see a commercial-free event. But the pandemic has upended everything, and advertisers are charged with, as Donalson puts it, "meeting the moment."

Then there's the question of who's watching, and how they're watching. According to Donalson, in the fourth quarter of 2020 more people got their TV from over-the-top (OTT) sources than through traditional broadcasting. That presents a huge targeted marketing opportunity.

And, 2020 marked another milestone -- it was the first year that Millennials were the largest buying segment for new cars. They're projected to have far less brand loyalty than previous generations. Donalson says they consider more than twice as many brands as people 55 and older before making a purchase decision. They're also more likely to be cord cutters who will be harder to reach via traditional television messaging.

"For our dealer body at PureCars, the largest group of buyers can be influenced, reached and targeted via OTT and online video products," Donalson said. "If you're not invested in those areas, you're turning a blind eye to one in three prospective purchasers."

Obviously, some targeting is possible via traditional television. If Lincoln buys time during a golf tournament or tennis match, it's getting a far more self-selecting audience than if it buys the Super Bowl. But the lure of paying only for consumers that are definitely in the market for buying a car, and have previously bought a lot of Lincolns, must be compelling.

"Our research shows that 74 to 76 percent of TV viewers can be reached via OTT advertising," Donalson said. "And the ads aren't skippable on OTT."

By the way, WeatherTech -- which makes auto floor mats -- is once again on the Super Bowl, showcasing its employees and made-in-America status. The company advertises very widely, and it works. Do you know any other floor mat brands?

Photo Caption: Will Ferrell for GM: He has a beef against Norway.

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