Chrysler breaks through, but there were other winners, too
DETROIT -- Last year automotive advertisers emerged from their recession bunkers and flocked back to the Super Bowl.
You had one game-changer ("Imported from Detroit") for a company (Chrysler) that sorely needed a game-changer. You had the just-right cuteness of the Volkswagen's Darth Vader ad, epic computer-generated imagery from Kia, and Mercedes-Benz appearing for the first time.
This year, automakers unleashed another flood of ads -- and another bold effort from Chrysler stood out.
But the abundance of car ads has become a challenge in itself to marketers. Will your incredibly expensive little mini-movie stand out? Or just melt into an undifferentiated mass of cars on twisty roads, computerized critters, bikini-clad women and adorable dogs?
Of course, these aren't just TV spots anymore. Nearly all were bouncing around the Web and social media last week.
You could argue that this diminishes their impact during the game. But under current advertising theory, that doesn't matter. Reaching several million additional viewers in the days before and after the Bowl trumps the surprise factor.
Quaint as it may seem, let's just look at the debut ads as ads, seen during America's biggest sporting event and mid-winter revel:
HIT Acura "Transactions"
This pretty much fills the bill of the Super Bowl Big Production.
"Transactions" shows Jerry Seinfeld's desperate bids to win the right to the first Acura NSX from the guy who beat him out. The bits range from pretty funny (zip line, $20 bill) to a little flat (munchkin). With the arrival of Jay Leno in a squirrel suit, two well-known car collectors are vying for the NSX. The risk in this kind of ad is that the car might not merit the attention. But the NSX is stunning enough to make it work.
MISS Audi "Vampire Party"
I guess if your target demo is mopey teenage girls yearning for a heavy-lidded vampiric stud to bite their neck, drink their blood and all of that, this hits the mark. For anyone weary of actors wearing silly canine-teeth extensions, it seems like a convoluted way to point out that Audi has bright headlights. Really, really bright headlights. Yes, curvy LED headlights are an Audi design cue. But they're a pretty secondary product feature.
MISS Cadillac "Green Hell"
Traditional auto ad territory here: the new car, in this case the ATS, roaring around a twisting track. Cadillac, seeking to show that the ATS can screech tires just like the Germans, errs in making the goal explicit. The voiceover describes the ATS as "built from the ground up to take on the BMW 3 series." Then it gives the Bimmer props as "the world's best." It's a problem when you define your car by the competition.
MISS Cars.com "Two Heads"
Okay, this is just weird. A car shopper has gained confidence by comparing deals on Cars.com. So his "confidence" appears as, like, this singing worm-thing coming out of his back? And the guy is visibly uncomfortable with his "confidence"? This one made me yearn for the next beer/financial services/salty snacks commercial. Anything. Just make the worm go away.
HIT Chevrolet "Happy Grad"
This spot showing a high-school grad mistakenly thinking his parents have given him a Camaro convertible is a delight. "Happy Grad" stays in one scene, as a growing swarm of adolescents exults over the car. And the sweet-looking yellow Camaro convertible remains planted in the middle of the scene throughout. Contrast this with some of the hyperactive comedy extravaganzas that forget the car as they barrel through a dozen scenes.
HIT Chevrolet "Sonic Anthem"
Clearly targeted at first-time buyers, this minute-long effort from Chevrolet also scores. Cutting between Chevy's Sonic subcompact in four crazy stunts -- a bungee jump, a parachute dive, a kick-flip and a music video -- it's an exuberant ode to youth, to the first time you do something. And watching the kick-flip driver close his eyes and brace himself is pretty cool.
HIT Chevrolet "2012"
Here Chevy meets the perennial challenge of pickup ads -- how tough is your truck, buddy? -- by playing on a supposed Mayan prediction that the world will end this year. (Wait -- wasn't the world supposed to end last year?) Anyway, it shows a Silverado emerging from post-apocalyptic rubble, with the owner and dog cruising to a rendezvous with other Silverado owners. The group pauses briefly to mourn a friend who didn't make it because "he drove a Ford." The end-of-times destruction is sanitized (bodies strewn about the landscape would have been way harsh, I guess). But this probably clicks with the Bowl's core audience. Extra points for the rain of frogs.
HIT Chrysler "Halftime"
Say what you will about Chrysler, the company doesn't lack ambition. This two minute ad not only trumps other celebrity signings with Clint Eastwood, it delivers a sermon -- a halftime speech, actually -- to America. Starkly shot in a style that connects to the "Imported from Detroit" Eminem spot last year, the combination of Eastwood striding through a nightscape, his trademark growl and unabashed patriotism is stirring. It doesn't really advertise a Chrysler product. My guess, though, is that the glow that this generates will reflect back on Chrysler.
SO-SO Honda "Matthew's Day Off"
Honda's replay of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" complete with Matthew Broderick, doesn't fare as well as corporate cousin Acura's Seinfeld-fest. The CR-V compact crossover is a successful, practical vehicle. But audience members who remember the movie likely also remember that the truant teens were cruising in a Ferrari (a 250GT California Spyder, to be specific). Broderick is genial, revisiting the movie raises pleasant associations, but … well, would a valet really jump at the chance to joyride in a CR-V?
SO-SO Hyundai "All for One"
This is the kind of ad that corporate honchos love, "showing the people of the company." Cubicle dwellers, assembly line workers, test drivers et al pipe up with an a capella version of the "Rocky" theme to buck up a discouraged colleague. The "Gonna Fly Now" thing has an undeniable cheesy infectiousness. But it's still working from a standard template.
SO-SO Hyundai "Cheetah"
A simple concept: The Hyundai Veloster races a cheetah. And, of course, the Veloster kicks the cat's spotted tail. At which point the cheetah turns on its handler, runs him down and, you would think, kills and devours him. But we wouldn't want the mean humor to be that mean, would we? So we see the cheetah chasing the guy around as the Veloster driver happily speeds off. Anyway, the spot puts across a simple formula: Veloster equals speed.
MISS Hyundai "Faster Acting"
Another "screeching around the track" spot, this time in service of the Genesis R Spec. maybe the spot should race against Cadillac's "Green Hell." It even calls out a German competitor: the Porsche Panamera S. Again, standard stuff.
HIT Hyundai "Think Fast"
This spot for the Genesis Coupe R Spec works better, with a young mentee using the car's hot acceleration and sturdy brakes to administer automotive CPR to an unconscious (and pompous) boss. A basic joke that ties in well to the vehicle, crisply done.
HIT Kia "A Dream Car. For Real Life"
Yes, the Optima screeches around a track, but Kia sets it up humorously as a dream sequence, then piles on wacky, wretched excess -- Motley Crue, ultimate fighter Chuck Liddell, a cowboy riding a bucking rhinoceros, a pair of lumberjacks sawing apart a giant submarine sandwich, model Adriana Lima, and many, many bikini-clad women. Kia is still building basic brand recognition as Hyundai's brash younger sib. This should help.
SO-SO Lexus "The Beast"
Lexus doesn't have its GS screech around a track; rather it is an ominous beast smashing its way out of a steel-walled cage. The message: "Change cannot be contained." Give Lexus points for avoiding the track. And it does another thing right -- it doesn't name-check any German rivals. Lexus has a ways to go to build a more exciting image, but this snarling spot moves the effort forward.
MISS Toyota "It's Reinvented"
Toyota riffs on reinvention in honor of the new Camry, with a couch made of bikini-clad women (and another of guys in swimsuits), a time-traveling baby, curtains made of pizza. Moderately funny, but in this venue that doesn't quite get you much notice.
MISS Toyota (Camry stories)
This un-previewed spot was a quick montage that made the point that the Camry, a perennial sales leader, has been a big part of people's lives. Not terribly dramatic or witty, this one just slipped by.
HIT Volkswagen "The Dog Strikes Back"
What's as loveable as a kid in a Darth Vader costume? Ah, the family dog! VW follows its standout ad from last year with another cute creature from home, in this case a pudgy dog who goes on a fitness regimen in order to chase a gleaming red Beetle. Not only are the workout sequences funny, I swear the dog emotes when it forlornly ponders its stout shape in a mirror. And the climactic shot of the dog racing alongside the Beetle is very nice -- two elegant forms in motion. It's so nice that the Star Wars canteen coda, while clever, is unnecessary.
You can reach Dave Guilford at email@example.com. -- Follow Dave on