Super Bowl

Super Bowl LII Preview: Is Auto Running Out of Gas?

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Credit: Mary Ellen Forte

Before this weekend is over, we'll know which teams will be squaring off against each other in Super Bowl LII. But while we're not sure if Tom Brady or Blake Bortles will be under center against the true home team or the Philadelphia Eagles, we do have a pretty good idea what to expect with regard to almost every other aspect of Super Bowl Sunday.

Business as usual

NBC Sports ad sales chief Dan Lovinger last week confirmed that NBC had fewer than 10 spots to sell before the game gets underway in Minneapolis, which if nothing else suggests that going down to the wire is the new normal. (Just a few years ago, Lovinger's predecessor Seth Winter said his sales team had moved the last of its $3.5 million spots shortly after Thanksgiving.) Look for the usual suspects to splash their messages across your flatscreen, including official beer backer Anheuser-Busch InBev, which will hype its Budweiser, Bud Light, Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra brands, as well as perennials like Pepsi and Coca-Cola. "Category-wise it's a fairly traditional mix relative to other Super Bowls," Lovinger said, adding that fans will be treated to the standard run of car, tech, movie, beverage and telco ads. Verizon said Friday that it is back in the game.

Auto may be running out of gas

After a six-year post-Recession stretch in which the auto category absolutely dominated the Super Bowl ad field, car spend retreated last year, with major marques like Toyota and Nissan sitting out. While automakers pumped $70.7 million into Fox's coffers, that marked a 38 percent decline from the $113.4 million in car bucks that the net snared just three years earlier. Two weeks after the U.S. auto sales posted their first annual decline in eight years, Lovinger assured reporters that "auto is particularly strong," although buyers suggest that the category is unlikely to rebound to mid-decade levels. Thus far, Lexus, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia are the only nameplates to confirm that they'll suit up for the title tilt. Honda has said it will sit out after appearing last year.

Screen test

Movie studios tend to play their Super Bowl cards pretty close to the vest—often because the studio marketing heads aren't entirely sure which creative they'll air until game day. (It's not unheard-of for the networks to receive the final cut of a movie teaser a few hours before the opening kickoff.) NBC's sibling Universal Pictures obviously has skin in this year's game, and a no-brainer release to fluff up is the June 22 popcorn flick "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom." (Three years ago, Universal drew a crowd when it ran a new cut of the trailer for the first "Jurassic World" during NBC's coverage of Super Bowl XLIX.) Paramount is also suiting up, and may choose to spotlight the Feb. 23 sci-fi thriller "Annihilation" and the blockbuster-in-waiting "Mission: Impossible 6," which drops July 27. But for 2014, when studios largely stayed away from the Super Bowl (only three movies were promoted during the broadcast), the category generally accounts for about 10 percent of all in-game spend. Look for 20th Century Fox to unspool a trailer for "Deadpool 2," while Disney could do worse than to fire up the hype machine for "Avengers: Infinity War" and that upcoming Han Solo thingy.

Almost famous

Ever since Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett starred in a weirdly licentious ad for Noxema—it was 1973, so the word "creamed" was deployed like a leering "Three's Company" double entendre—marketers have hitched celebrity types to their Super Bowl ad wagons. This year, the lineup of entertainers slated to appear includes bona fide movie stars (Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon), an OG supermodel (Cindy Crawford), a lead actor in cable's most popular series (Peter Dinklage), crooner/recurring "SNL" guest Justin Timberlake, at least one rapper (Iggy Azalea) and Jon Lovitz (Jon Lovitz). For all that celebrity firepower, it's Timberlake who'll have Americans riveted to the screen. Fourteen years ago, 144 million viewers watched as Timberlake effectively sidelined Janet Jackson's career with his ill-advised "wardrobe malfunction" stunt (after which he more or less skated), and while JT has promised to turn in a PG-rated performance, like all post-Nipplegate performers, he'll be on a five-second delay.

Best bets

Last year, an estimated $4.5 billion was bet on the Pats-Falcons game, and only $138.5 million of that sum was legally staked in Vegas sports books. We'd be willing to wager at least a couple bucks on the likelihood that T-Mobile will be back in the thick of things this year, if only because parent company Deutsche Telekom was the No. 2 biggest spender in Super Bowl LI and the third most-profligate backer of the 2016 game. Other near-sure things include T-Mobile competitor Sprint and Echo peddler Amazon. And then there's the Chinese smartphone manufacturer Huawei. AT CES, Huawei announced that its new Mate 10 Pro model would be available for pre-order on Feb. 4—that's Super Sunday—before introducing "Wonder Woman" star Gal Gadot as its new celebrity spokesperson. While AT&T this month scuttled plans to distribute Huawei phones here in the U.S., the company may still look to plant a flag with consumers.

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