Why so many auto brands are sitting out the Super Bowl
In a normal year, Super Bowl advertising resembles a multiple-car pileup. So many auto commercials typically run in the game that brands must be extra creative to stand out.
But that likely won’t be a problem this year. To date, only three automakers have confirmed in-game national ads—General Motors, Toyota and Jeep owner Stellantis. (Car retail site Vroom is also running an ad.) Five brands that advertised in last year’s game—Hyundai, Genesis, Audi, Kia and Porsche—have confirmed they are sitting it out, while other brands that have run ads in recent years are also a no-go for national ads, including Ford, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, according to company representatives.
Barring any last-minute surprises, Super Bowl viewers will see fewer car ads than they have in many years. Last year, six automakers consumed a total of seven minutes and 30 seconds of airtime, spending an estimated $77 million on media buys—more than any other category, according to Kantar. The category’s recent high-water mark came in 2018, when 11 auto brands ran ads.
This year, auto brands faced the same challenges confronted in other categories, including COVID-related ad production challenges and determining if putting out a big-budget, celebrity-filled Super Bowl spot would fit the mood of a country still hunkered down in the pandemic. That is a special consideration for automakers, which are often pulled into big debates on politics and policy, and whose production facilities are now being used to make personal protective equipment during the COVID fight.
There are other unique factors inside the auto industry that kept so many brands sidelined. The pandemic forced some dealerships to close in the early days of the pandemic, and while the industry has shown resilience and retail sales are rebounding, the top 10 auto brands all posted sales declines in 2020, according to Automotive News, with industrywide sales finishing the year down 14.4%.
This forced brands to put their marketing budgets under major scrutiny, including weighing the feasibility of shelling out $5.5 million for 30 seconds of air time in the Super Bowl, not including significant costs for talent and production.
“Given that the pandemic cut car sales by about 15% in 2020, it's no surprise that car makers for the most part are skipping expensive Super Bowl advertising,” says Jim Nail, an analyst at Forrester, whose specialty includes marketing measurement. “I would expect them to focus their ad spending on traditional sales events, like the upcoming President's Day. The notable exception, of course, is GM which will use the Super Bowl not to promote a specific brand or vehicle but to make a splash around their electric vehicle strategy.”
General Motors plans two ads, one for an electric Cadillac model and another corporate spot that uses humor and Will Ferrell to tout EVs for an American audience that has not yet adopted them in any widespread fashion.
But GM was lucky to get its big-budget spots done amid COVID challenges. The company shot them in the Los Angeles region and was fortunate to wrap up production before early January, when the rising COVID caseload in Los Angeles promoted industry warnings about continuing ad shoots. “We were talking to other brands to understand how everyone is and how they are doing on content, and I know it was a scramble for many,” Global Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl told Ad Age in a recent interview.
Hyundai, which has aired 12 Super Bowl commercials over the past 13 years, weighed its options for much of last year, but ultimately decided to stay on the sidelines for various reasons. While Super Bowl ads run early in the year, the automaker must budget them in the year prior—and the brand was hesitant to commit to such a big investment amid the chaotic sales environment, says Hyundai CMO Angela Zepeda.
“We did cut back our marketing budgets to make our overall financial goals,” she says. “Keeping people employed and keeping the whole machine going is a lot more important than one big day of advertising.”
But there were other tactical reasons why a Big Game ad did not make sense. Hyundai wants to make a major, sustained push on its new Tucson SUV model that hits dealers in April. So it wants to spread spending over many months, and saving on a Super Bowl ad helps that endeavor, Zepeda said. Also, Hyundai, like a lot of brands, has a history of using celebrities in its Super Bowl spots, but often their contracts make it expensive to use them in ads that run well beyond gameday, according to Zepeda. “Some celebrities only like being in the Super Bowl spot,” she says.
Mark Wakefield, a managing director at global consulting firm AlixPartners, who is involved in the firm’s automotive practice, says Super Bowl ads “get green-lit well-ahead of time,” noting that there were times last year when there was uncertainty about the game even being played.
“With the rising tide of infections in the fall, I think that risk got larger,” he says. Also, there is an impetus for automakers to be seen as being part of the COVID solution, he suggests. And “a big, splashy Super Bowl ad presents a bit more risk this year than it did in other years to be seen as off-tone.”
Wakefield says, this year, automakers have other ways to message, such as gaining news coverage for using their production facilities to manufacture masks and ventilators.
Ford has put a huge emphasis on this. The automaker used its New Year’s Day college football marketing to run a campaign promoting mask-wearing called “Finish Strong,” rather than flood the airwaves to promote its F-150 pickup truck.
The automaker will continue the campaign in the Super Bowl, but instead of a national ad, it is targeting Southern California, Texas and Florida, which are “some of the hardest-hit COVID-19 areas in the U.S., based on data and analysis from University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation,” according to a Ford press release.
The ad (below) will also run in Michigan and Missouri, where Ford says it “has a high concentration of employees who cannot work from home.” The company expects to get 325 million media impressions, including TV views and digital and social media airings.
The ad comes as Ford increases its mask-donation commitment to 120 million masks, up from 100 million, targeting “communities and organizations with limited access to personal protective equipment,” according to the company.
“Sure we could have done national advertising,” but “we are trying to make the dollars we have go as far as we can,” says Mark Truby, Ford’s chief communications officer, referencing its mask-making efforts. The company is also working on new clear respirators that “enable a full range of human expression, allowing people to better communicate with each other and aiding those with hearing impairments to help read lips that are today blocked by conventional cloth and filtered masks,” according to a statement.
Other auto brands are finding ways to gain attention around the game that don’t involve expensive TV ads, while skirting trademarked phrases like “Super Bowl,” which the National Football League strictly protects for official sponsors.
Volvo is running a campaign called “Safety Sunday,” with which it pledges to give away $2 million worth of cars if a safety is scored in the Super Bowl. Even though safeties, which accrue when offensive teams are tackled in their own end zone, are relatively rare, Volvo has lured significant interest in the promotion. To enter, fans must visit VolvoSafetySunday.com and use an online tool to configure their desired Volvo—which induces the kind of consumer engagement that “is not a level of interaction that you would get from just a static ad in the game,” says Jim Nichols, Volvo’s head of product, technology and brand communication.
While the brand declined to reveal the number of entries so far, a similar program last year “set records internally for configurations on the web site,” Nichols says.
Of course, when it comes to sheer numbers, few things beat getting your message in front of 100 million Super Bowl viewers. Auto brands that advertised in last year’s game drew a significant uptick in visits to their individual pages on online car retailing site Cars.com, according to the retailer. The leader was Hyundai-owned Genesis, which got a 5,530% lift (Cars.com analyzed site traffic eight minutes before each spot aired and again eight minutes after.)
With numbers like that, it’s likely that auto brands will come back to the game once COVID is in the rearview mirror. “We love Super Bowl,” Hyundai’s Zepeda says, calling it “still the biggest platform for the most amount of eyeballs”
Even Honda, which has not advertised in the game since 2017, has not ruled out a return. This year, its new vehicle launches did not line-up with the Super Bowl timing, says Ed Beadle, assistant VP of American Honda’s marketing division, listing that as one factor why it stayed away.
“I think long-term, we could be back,” he says. “I think this is a weird year, specifically with regard to all the restrictions on production.” The brand, he adds, put together two major campaigns during COVID, “and it wasn’t easy. What you can do is limited.”