Automakers gird for Super Bowl

by Andy Fixmer and Mark Clothier

Bloomberg

From the Muppets to James Franco, Hollywood will be working hard for carmakers at the Super Bowl.

At least seven auto brands will advertise during Fox TV’s telecast of the National Football League championship game on Feb. 2, researcher Kantar Media said, making the industry the biggest sponsor for the third year straight. Jaguar, the British luxury sports-car brand owned by Tata Motors Ltd., plans its first spot ever, while Franco pitches Ford, Laurence Fishburne appears in spots for Kia and the Muppets ride in a Toyota.

Carmakers are spending as much as $6 million per 30-second spot to grab consumers and promote a bumper crop of new vehicles during the telecast, typically the most-watched TV event of the year in the U.S.

The challenge: making their ad resonate with the more than 100 million viewers who will be chatting up their favorite spots online or at the water cooler the next day.

New-car sales in the U.S. are forecast to climb back to levels preceding the Great Recession and the government-financed bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009.

“It’s the right place,” Jon Swallen, Kantar Media’s research chief, said in an interview. “The Super Bowl attracts a broader audience than core sports fans who are male, skews higher income and is a perfect audience for auto brands.”

Analysts project a fifth consecutive year of growth in auto purchases by U.S. consumers in 2014, estimating light-vehicle sales of more than 16 million, the most since 2007. Carmakers are introducing 37 new models in North America this year, the most since 2006, according to IHS Automotive.

This year’s game promises to be a big draw by pitting the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos — the game’s top defense against its top offense. It will be the first time in five years the two No. 1 seeds have met for the Lombardi trophy.

Competition among auto ads will be equally fierce, with each trying to one-up the other and dislodge Volkswagen AG’s “The Force” commercials, featuring a kid dressed as Darth Vader. The spot has been seen 59 million times on YouTube and ranks as Edmunds.com‘s most memorable Super Bowl auto ad.

Advertising during last year’s Super Bowl totaled $292 million, according to Kantar Media. Automakers spent $105.4 million before, during and after the contest, a 1.4 percent drop from the previous year. Their ads during the game alone cost $92 million, a fivefold increase from $18 million in 2009, the lowest in the past 10 years. Movie studios and dot-com companies tie for the next-biggest spenders.

Standing out can be tough in a telecast where the advertising is as talked about as the game. In addition to paying an average of $4 million for 30 seconds of air time, Super Bowl commercials can cost about $2 million to make and last shorter than a regular ad campaign, Kantar said.

“There’s a saying in our business, if you don’t show the sheet metal, people won’t buy the car,” said Val DiFebo, chief executive officer of Deutsch New York, whose company, Deutsch Inc., handles ads for Go Daddy Operating Co. and Volkswagen. “People are interested in seeing the car, but there’s a difference between what you do on the Super Bowl and what you do in other places to drive traffic to showrooms.”

Ford Motor Co. will run an ad between the coin toss and kickoff, said Mark LaNeve, chief operating officer of the automaker’s agency, Global Team Ford. Actor Franco posted a photo on Instagram revealing he’s part of the campaign with the caption: “Ford — Super Bowl commercial — baaaaaby.”

Kia Motors Corp. plans a minute-long spot for the new K900 premium sedan that features Fishburne, said Tom Loveless, the company’s executive vice president for U.S. sales.

As Loveless spoke at the North American International Auto Show earlier this month, a video screen showed Fishburne in sunglasses, recalling his role as Morpheus in “The Matrix.”

Viewers will also see ads by General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet and Hyundai Motor Co., along with a spot from Toyota Motor Corp. that features Walt Disney Co.’s Muppets and Terry Crews, the actor and former NFL player.

Jaguar’s 30-second commercial, airing in the second half of the game, stars actor Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar playing Mahatma Gandhi. The spot plays off the history of Britons as villains in films and TV and was shot in London by director Tom Hooper, whose credits include “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables.” A 41 percent sales gain last year made Jaguar the fastest-growing luxury brand, according to Jeff Curry, U.S. marketing chief.

This year’s Super Bowl, the first played outdoors in a cold-weather city, will set viewership records, Kantar’s Swallen predicted. Regular-season NFL games on Fox set an audience record this season, it said. Last year’s game drew 108.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Some automakers are choosing to sit out the game, saving their marketing budgets for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month, or spreading out commercials across several events.

Only one in five Super Bowl commercials results in sales, according to Arizona-based researcher Communicus Inc.