Automakers in the Game (and on the Sidelines)

As of the exact moment we’re writing this, COVID-19 hasn’t forced any Tampa Bay or Kansas City players out of Sunday’s Super Bowl. That could change in an instant. Just ask Kansas City’s barber.

The unpredictability and unknowns of pandemic life have, however, impacted the Super Bowl’s most reliable players: its advertisers. “In a normal year, Super Bowl advertising resembles a multiple-car pileup,” AdAge wrote this week.

Fiat Chrysler alone aired five Super Bowl ads in 2018. In the past five years, Audi has aired four spots, Kia five, Hyundai six—not including two from Genesis. Fiat Chrysler aired nine to tout four of its nameplates, and Toyota aired eight, plus two more from Lexus.

This year is going to look different. Audi, Kia, Hyundai, Genesis, and Porsche are all going to be on the sidelines. No Volkswagen (so no adorable Darth Vader). No BMW or Mercedes-Benz or Lexus. By Ad Age‘s count, in 2018, 11 automotive brands advertised during the Super Bowl. This year that number is three or four, depending on how you want to count GM and Cadillac. They’ll be joined Sunday by Jeep and Toyota. Volvo won’t have an ad, but it will give away $2 million worth of cars if there’s a safety in the game.

It isn’t just auto manufacturers wrestling with how to manage TV’s biggest ad stage in the midst of a pandemic (and ad budgets when spots cost in the neighborhood of $5.5 million for 30 seconds of time). Even Budweiser, the king of Super Bowl advertising with 37 straight years in the game, is sitting 2021 out. Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, is running its first ad, but that one is focused on togetherness.

Ford’s 60-second spot, “Finish Strong,” is a call to stay focused—and together— as we continue to work to move past the coronavirus. Coming after a year when Ford launched three of the most important new models in its lineup, the ad eschews Ford vehicles or even a Ford logo, and the link at the end leads viewers to the philanthropic Ford Motor Company Fund.

Toyota’s 60-second spot, “Upstream,” goes with the same flow, celebrating Toyota-sponsored athlete and Paralympian Jessica Long and hyping the “hope and strength in all of us.”

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GM is the lone product-focused holdout. Cadillac is returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2012, pushing its upcoming Lyriq EV. The ad—teased earlier this week—suggests inspiration from the 1990 Tim Burton film Edward Scissorhands. Consistent with a strategy that’s promised a whole bunch of EVs in the coming years, GM’s other ad takes aim at: Norway.

The Scandinavian country is the world leader in EV purchases per capita, and Will Ferrell—GM’s trial-by-combat champion—won’t stand for it. Ferrell lures Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina into battle riding a Cadillac Lyriq and the coming GMC Hummer EV, the trio avoiding bloodshed thanks to being severely geographically challenged. Which is strange considering these EVs will come with the latest navigation systems splayed out on gigundous screens.

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Because we live in a connected world and there’s no reason miss a marketing opportunity, Audi Norway snagged Norwegian Game of Thrones actor Kristofer Hivju for a series of digital spots responding to GM. (Ford also had something to say.) After turning to another Game of Thrones actor last year, Audi isn’t planning an ad during this year’s Super Bowl.

The automotive presence expands slightly if we broaden our definition a touch. Online car shopping service Vroom and floor mat maker WeatherTech are each doing 30-second spots.

Vroom goes to the dark side in imagining what some shoppers feel like when buying a car at a dealer. The scenario might be far-fetched, but we’re sure that for many people, the anxiety isn’t. Still, it’s another wild sign of our times when Vroom felt the need to include “Fictionalization. Do Not Attempt” in small print over a man tied to a chair.

WeatherTech is the only auto industry player to keep its Super Bowl run going, having aired at least one spot for the past five years. Its seventh commercial sticks to the template, selling the floor mats by way of selling the merits of the company and our country.

Finally, there’s Jeep, its parent company now known as Stellantis, and the possibility they have secured an American icon for a spot scheduled for the second half. What to make of the rumors that Bruce Springsteen might finally be up for a little marketing of something other than a record or a show?

An Automotive News report pieced together digital clues that Bruce Springsteen was in Nebraska for a shoot. The rumor is it’s for Jeep—perhaps the new Grand Cherokee? Stellantis ad chief Oliver François loves making big plays. Last year it was actor Bill Murray in a reprise of his Groundhog Day role. In 2011, it was rapper Eminem in an ad titled, “Imported from Detroit.”

Has François secured an artist who’s declined to use his music and his person in ads for more than 40 years? If so, that could be the play of the game, having turned a Hail Mary into a Hail Bruce.

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