NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Americans tune into the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, they should expect to see as much metal as they do pigskin.
Car marketers, having woken from their recession-induced ad slumber, are doubling down for Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas and setting the bar sky high for auto companies and their ad agencies to craft commercials unique enough to break through the clutter and capture viewers' attention.
Although car ads have long been a staple of the Big Game -- the premier U.S. TV broadcast that commands as much as $3 million per ad -- 2011 is shaping up to be the biggest auto-ad showdown in recent memory. As of press time, at least eight different auto manufacturers had purchased airtime. What's more, many of them are buying more ad time than they have in the past, and raising the ante with two or three commercials sprinkled throughout the broadcast.
Six car makers ran a combined five minutes and 30 seconds worth of ads in Super Bowl XLIV, up from five manufacturers running three minutes worth of commercials in 2009, according to WPP's Kantar Media.
Ad Age last week broke the news that BMW North America will return to the game after a decade, seeking to use the Super Bowl as a stage to launch a new slate of cars. General Motors, which had sat the past two games out, is back in with a focus on Chevrolet, top marketer Joel Ewanick told Ad Age earlier this year. Chrysler, the only U.S. automaker to show up in the last Super Bowl broadcast with a single ad for Dodge, is back in and this time wants at least two brands in the game, according to people familiar with the matter. Audi of America is making its fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance and will be in the game's first commercial break.
Volkswagen , which aired one Super Bowl ad the last time around, will return with the purchase of an additional spot. Kia, which last ran a 30-second spot, will run a 60-second ad in Super Bowl XLV, while Hyundai Motor America will air three ads -- one more than it did in 2010. Mercedes-Benz will air one 60-second spot in the fourth quarter from Merkley & Partners, timed because the company has four new product launches next year and it is the 125th anniversary of the brand. "We're up nearly 20% and want to ride that wave ... it's a good way to start the year," said Donna Boland, corporate communications manager at Mercedes Benz USA.
Indeed. Many automakers are bouncing back, posting healthy sales results after bankruptcy filings, government bailouts and recalls, and like Mercedes, they have news to share about new models -- in BMW and GM's case, electric car models. It all adds up to car makers heftily contributing to the record sellout of the game. News Corp.'s Fox, which is broadcasting the game, booked 80% of its ad inventory by June, and by October the network announced the Super Bowl was sold out.
Now comes the real challenge: After spending all that money, how do you get your messages to cut through? Since so many car ads look the same, the chance of their being recalled by consumers is low. Most top broadcast-network shows have a car ad in nearly every commercial break, often showing an automobile or truck traveling on an open road or city street while pop music plays in the background.
Making things worse, car makers over the past two years have grown more conservative, trading humor and emotion for retail-oriented messages. Steve Wilhite, who spent 20 years at VW of America and was the client behind Arnold's famous "Drivers Wanted" campaign, describes car advertising these days as "absolute dreck," "mind-numbing" and "uninspiring."
In the history of Super Bowl advertising, car ads haven't been known for being very memorable. "Super Bowl car ads are pretty much DOA -- dead on arrival for ad likability," said Chuck Tomkovick, a marketing professor at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
Experts say carmakers will now have to work doubly hard to avoid familiar tropes or themes. "You must have a key, new, innovative, value-laden message to put out there," said George Cook, executive professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business.
To combat the problem, ad-buying agencies representing many top automakers usually ask TV networks not to run ads from competitors during the same commercial break. Even so, these rules only apply to national commercials, and ads from local stations can sometimes run in the same ad pod. Ad buyers with knowledge of automobile marketing have often said that consumers' ability to recall individual car ads gets weakened as more of them air. A spokesman for Fox Sports declined to comment on how it might arrange Super Bowl ads from similar advertisers.
For many of these show-the-metal marketers, "it depends on what you want out of the day," said Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which now serves as the agency for Chevrolet, but two Super Bowls ago crafted Hyundai's ads. "The Hyundai Assurance spots wouldn't have won the USA Today ad meter, but they were certainly written about in the wake of the Super Bowl a lot. There are also things like "Angry Bosses" [an ad that aired in Super Bowl 2009] which did do well on the polls because it was designed to be something people remembered, laughed at, talked about."
Said Mr. Goodby : "I hope we do a combination of the two things we talked about -- a big idea and some things that are really fun to watch and memorable. I feel really good about having Chevy as a brand to do this with because they have a distinctive identity and brand to build on."
Cameron McNaughton, an automotive marketing consultant, pointed out that no amount of experience or testing can guarantee a winning Super Bowl ad. "The thing about the Super Bowl that is such a challenge for auto manufacturers and their agencies is you have to step out of the traditional auto creative comfort zone, and having done that, you may still get panned the next day." Asked to give his predictions for winners this February, he ranked Audi and its agency Venables Bell & Partners No. 1, followed by Chevrolet and Goodby Silverstein. "I hope one of them finally manages to take out Doritos for best spot," said Liz Vanzura, chief marketing officer of MMB in Boston, who formerly served as the global marketing director for GM's Cadillac brand. "How come a nacho-chip brand can knock out some of the sexiest car brands year after year? The brands should take advantage of the stage the Super Bowl gives them and run their most edgy, emotional, fun and entertaining work."
One big car advertiser hopes to stand apart from the pack by not joining it. Ford Motor Co. will advertise only during Fox's pre-game coverage, said Matthew VanDyke, director of U.S. marketing communications at Ford.