Super Bowl 2015: Audi, Ford Bow Out as Nissan and Other Auto Brands Rev Up

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A lot has been made of NBC’s late closing of inventory for Super Bowl ad spots. But really, you can just blame it all on automakers: At least a half-dozen car brands that have been reliable Big Game advertisers during the last few years have decided, this year at least, to bow out.

Audi is the latest to join the Big Game holdouts. Confirming what both auto and branding observers suspected for a while, the company said today that it won’t participate in Super Bowl advertising this year, marking the first time in seven years it won’t be suiting up. Ford and Lincoln also confirmed this week that the sibling brands won’t be in the Big Game.

What’s going on here? For a start, the most common explanation by the automakers that have bowed out this year: in 2015 at least, even the world’s biggest marketing stage just didn’t fit their “product launch cadence” in a way that would justify the estimated $4.5 million price tag for 30-second spots this year.[more]

While there were 11 automotive brands advertising in the game last year, there will still be at least six in this year’s Super Bowl:

• BMW, promoting its i3 EV electric car;

• Kia, tapping James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan to promote the new Kia Sorento;

• Lexus, which just released its second Super Bowl ad, showing the new Lexus NX compact SUV making some noise:

• Mercedes-Benz, which is teasing “The Big Race,” its fourth-quarter tortoise vs. hare Super Bowl spot, with a faux sport talk show starring Jerry Rice and a microsite promoting a Big Race viewing party contest:

• Nissan, which is returning to the Big Game for the first time in 18 years and commissioning popular YouTube creators to produce short films under the #WithDad theme, such as Roman Atwood’s ball-filled video (which has already attracted almost 11 million views in 2 days on Atwood’s channel, where it wasn’t revealed to be a Nissan project):

•  Toyota, which continues the good fatherhood message by exploring inspirational themes under the “To Be a Dad” theme with athlete-celebrities ranging from Amy Purdy to Muhammad Ali.

And, presumably, Fiat Chrysler will return with at least one of its brands, continuing a run that has produced a string of memorable, and often remarkable, Super Bowl ads stretching back to the Eminem “Born Of Fire” spot in 2011.

As the NFL recovers from a terrible year in which domestic violence made headlines, the emerging theme of fatherhood is already resonating online, where Dove Men+Care also revealed an updated (voiceover) version of last year’s “Calls For Dad” ad that will be running during the game.

Nissan also kicked off its #withdad campaign today with a simple message, and some big partners on YouTube, including Action Movie Kid and Epic Meal Time.

An Audi spokesman paid homage to the power of Super Bowl advertising by reminding Automotive News that the brand led the luxury car segment into the game and pioneered in areas including the use of the first hashtag in a Super Bowl ad.

Now Audi feels that it can maintain its incredible marketplace momentum of the last several years without a Super Bowl ad in 2015 even though, the spokesman told the publication, after the Super Bowl “year after year, we’ve continued to see record levels of awareness and showroom traffic with national consideration numbers showing significant spikes post-game.”

Plus with Audi, at least, there’s that launch-cadence factor: While last spring, Audi introduced its important all-new A3 Sedan in the entry-level part of the premium-car market in the US, this year’s biggest product introduction, a significantly overhauled version of the Q7 SUV, constitutes an existing model, and its debut won’t come until mid-year.

This sort of argument also helps explain why Chevrolet, lately a major Super Bowl advertiser, is taking the year off, as are the other General Motors brands. Buick and GMC introduced significant new and revised products last year, and sales are doing well.

Cadillac’s US sales are down, but the brand doesn’t plan a reveal of its new positioning until February—on the red carpet during the Oscars telecast—while its highly-awaited new large sedan, CT6, will be unveiled at the New York Auto Show in April.

Last year at this time, Chevy was ramping up the launch of its most profitable product, a new heavy-duty version of the Silverado pickup truck. “It made sense” then to pound the Super Bowl with truck spots, as GM returned to the Super Bowl in 2014 after a year’s absence, Chevrolet CMO Tim Mahoney told USA Today. This year, by contrast, significant Chevy introductions such as the new-and-improved Volt mostly won’t come until the second half of the year.

Honda US CMO Mike Accavitti echoed that theme in remarks to USA Today about why Honda has bowed out of the Big Game this year. “The timing wasn’t right,” he said.

Arguably, Volkswagen these days could really use the kind of boost in visibility and goodwill that it has gotten annually from its Super Bowl ads, which have effectively used humor (remember “Little Darth Vader”?) to underscore the accessibility and relevance of the VW brand. Last year, VW sales in the United States took a beating after three solid years of gains.

But to a large degree VW’s annus horribilis in the US last year was the result of a lack of a significant new-product introduction until late in the year. And once Volkswagen debuted the new-generation Golf and GTI subcompacts last fall, sales began to spurt forward again—and the nameplates won the 2015 North American New Car of the Year Award at the Detroit auto show last week.

Which brings us to some of the other underlying, and more subtle, reasons that more car brands may be spurning the Super Bowl this year, and the possibility that 2015 marks the beginning of a longer-term erosion in that relationship, particularly as brand marketers debate how to balance online vs. TV (and other) marketing platforms.

For one thing, while the Big Game remains the Big Kahuna in terms of global, or at least American, marketing platforms that have the biggest reach and impact year after year, automakers like other brands increasingly are finding alternative—and, in total, less expensive—effective ways to get their branding messages out, ranging from other “tentpole” events like Hollywood awards shows, to the rising attention paid to marketing at auto shows and at CES,  to the continued proliferation of social media, branded content and experiential events.

Consider the attention that has rained down on VW lately because of the popularity of the new Golf and the third-party honors it has received. How many more Golfs would Volkswagen actually sell in the US this year even by applying its trademark humor in a Super Bowl spot?

There’s also the crowding factor: Some auto marketers just didn’t want to cope with the prospect of fighting 10 other car brands for attention, each of them bringing their best games, all within the space of several hours—and at $4.5 million a pop.

And the biggest question of all: is Super Bowl advertising all that effective for carmakers any more? Car brands led those who fared poorly with their ads in the 2014 Big Game, according to recent research by Communicus. “There’s been so much clutter that it makes it harder for any given [automotive] brand to stand out,” Jeri Smith, CEO of the firm, told Ad Age.

One more possibility, of course, is that auto marketers could be making individual decisions to punish the NFL a bit after its domestic-violence debacle at the beginning of the season raised a sour taste in the mouths of many about the entire sport and many of its players.

But that’s not likely. Auto brands have been strong advertisers throughout the current season including the playoffs. The NFL isn’t likely to let this particular issue get the best of it again. And there’s still nothing like the Super Bowl.

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