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Super Bowl 2010

Chrysler Just Can't Dodge Controversy Over Bowl Buy

Bailed-Out Marketers Must Spend to Grow, Yet Get Flak Over Big Outlays

By Published on . 6

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Chrysler last week became the latest marketer to highlight the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation in which bailed-out companies find themselves when it comes to marketing: Don't advertise, you don't move product. Advertise, you get hammered for wasting money.

The troubled automaker snapped up one of the few remaining slots in the Super Bowl to air a 60-second ad promoting its Dodge Charger brand. Its decision to return to the game now, after a five-year hiatus and on the heels of a bankruptcy, set off a debate among consumers whether spending that kind of cash was kosher.

Within hours of the news, the carmaker was getting skewered in the blogosphere by angry consumers who dubbed the high-profile buy a waste of taxpayer dollars. "Of all their cars, they're going to spend MILLIONS (of my tax payer money) to advertise the CHARGER?" wrote James Sonne on Autoblog.

The debate raged on Advertising Age's website too: A Santa Fe, New Mexico-based reader called the purchase a "slap in the face to every American taxpayer. ... This is Chrysler's way of saying 'Thanks for saving us, but now screw you, America. We're gonna use the money to pay for some Super Bowl ads.'"

Others rushed to Chrysler's defense. Wrote one commenter: "They barely spent any ad money coming out of bankruptcy and lost significant market share. How do we expect them to ever repay taxpayer money if they don't sell vehicles? And to sell vehicles, you must make people aware of your product offerings. This is a bold and significant risk for Dodge to make, but I applaud them for doing so."

Tough crowd
So what's a company who's taken a handout to do? Marketing is a part of the normal course of any business, and essential to rebuilding tattered brands. But when you're screamed at for spending money, is it worth it?

Two of the big three U.S. automakers don't seem to think so. Fear of scrutiny is what prompted the exodus of Ford and General Motors from last year's Super Bowl, and neither have returned this time around. That means Chrysler is the only domestic car company that will air an ad during the NFL broadcast on Feb. 7.

It wasn't long ago that financial companies that took bailout bucks from the feds got whipped by the public for their advertising activities. Last March, AIG was widely criticized for giving $28 million to the Manchester United soccer club to keep their logos on the players' shirts. Bank of America also got slammed for sponsorship deals, but unlike most, it fought back: "The only way that we're going to be able to pay back all our shareholders is pursuing business activities, like our relationship with the sports industry, that allow us to generate earnings."

Of course, there's added attention to a Super Bowl buy, where the sky-high cost -- $3 million for 30 seconds -- has always been a consumer fascination, and a higher bar for the creative to be perfect.

A Chrysler spokeswoman declined to reveal the cost associated with its Bowl buy, but defended the purchase in an e-mail to Ad Age as one of efficiency as compared to less-scrutinized advertising.

Smart move?
"The Super Bowl is one of the most-watched TV programs of the year, not only for the football game but for the creative advertising," she said. "It provides an efficient platform to make a statement, set the new brand-positioning and reach the maximum number of viewers in comparison to traditional advertising. ... It would be more costly to achieve the same number of viewers in traditional media placement and ensure the high viewership attention span that the Super Bowl delivers."

Marketing experts concur with the carmaker's decision, saying it could be just the thing the brand needs -- provided the spot from Portland-based creative shop Wieden & Kennedy will actually move metal.

"There's two sides of Super Bowl advertising," said Ami Bowen, VP at Boston-based Copernicus Marketing Consulting, which has studied Super Bowl ROI. "On the one hand it's a great opportunity to reach a great number of people. At the same time, unless there's a reason-to-buy message in the ad, it's a waste of marketing dollars, whether they are taxpayer or not. In Chrysler's case, it could work if Chrysler's marketers spent some time really thinking about what it is about Chrysler that they are going to convey."

"If I were Dodge, I would be less concerned about the public reaction," said Cameron McNaughton, president of McNaughton Automotive Perspectives. "I think Americans want these companies to succeed, and there is an opportunity for Dodge to stand up and say to them 'This is the way forward.'

"From an automotive marketing point of view, there's nothing quite like the Super Bowl," Mr. McNaughton added. "It's a huge audience, and let's face it, cars tend to be a male-dominated category. But it's also an advertising fashion show. If you don't have a piece of advertising that is ready to rock, then you shouldn't be there. They've got Wieden doing the work, so we can hope for something incredible."

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