Why it's time for auto advertisers to throw a flag on the NFL

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Allow me to read the mind of nearly every automotive marketing chief today because I think they're all having the same thought: "Do I really want to be associated with this?"

I'm talking about the National Football League, its ongoing lockout of league referees and the disastrous results that the lockout is having on what had been the premier marketing venue for automakers in the United States.

For three weeks, automakers have spent millions of dollars advertising their products during games whose outcomes have been decided by wrong-headed calls made by folks who have no NFL experience -- and no business being -- on the field.

Look, blown calls are not new to professional football. But there was always an assurance that certain staple calls (spotting the ball, interpreting the rules accurately, etc.) would be handled correctly.

In short, muffed calls were the noticeable exception, not the rule for each and every game. Officials on the field kept control of the games, and disrespecting an official was verboten.

Now, what was a steady drip of blown officiating calls has turned first into a trickle, and then a stream of muffed decisions, infuriating fans on both sides of each of the league's games.

Then on Monday night, during what used to be the NFL's spotlight contest, the Green Bay Packers were robbed of a victory by what could most generously be called "amateur" officiating.

I'm no fan of the Packers, but I am a fan of fairness and professionalism -- and Green Bay and its fans received neither.

So what does this have to do with the auto industry? Quite a bit, actually, because it's the auto industry that is largely subsidizing this ongoing dispute through its continued advertising.

Meanwhile two of the NFL's 30 teams -- Detroit and Jacksonville -- are owned by people who have made their money making cars and trucks.

It's important to note that the referees aren't on strike -- they aren't voluntarily withholding their labor. They were involuntarily locked out of their jobs by team owners, through the NFL commissioner's office.

By definition then, the owners and the league could end the lockout anytime, bring the referees back and restore their product.

So far, they have chosen not to do so, and their customers are growing increasingly angry. See example above.

And, after seeing General Motors pour serious marketing money on European soccer this year, the NFL ought to realize it's not the only game in town for sports advertising.

If I were a marketing chief for any automaker -- with the possible exception of Ford Motor Co., whose family association with the Detroit Lions might put them in a special category -- I don't know that I'd want to showcase my vehicle in a venue that's beginning to generate so much contempt and hatred.

Or, to put it in automotive terms, allow me to congratulate the NFL for transforming itself from the marketing equivalent of a Porsche 911 into a Pontiac Aztek.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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