LOS ANGELES -- This year's crop of Super Bowl ads, and the dollars spent on them during Seattle's 43-8 rout of Denver, spotlighted the unique challenges some automakers face in realigning their brand images with their expanding product portfolios. It also illustrated the divergent strategies they are using to build and maintain buzz around their big-budget marketing bets.
Drawing on a mix of Muppets, mayhem, matchmakers and "The Matrix," automakers once again dominated the commercial breaks during the championship game, accounting for at least 13 minutes of advertising time in a 3-1/2-hour broadcast, and seeking to impress the game's estimated 100 million viewers with a brand message that, to them, was worth paying $8 million a minute to convey.
For Jaguar, the Indian-owned luxury brand making its Super Bowl debut, the game was a chance to assert a British automotive identity that's more anti-establishment and less walnut wood and Grey Poupon.
For Kia, a value brand trying to launch a $60,000 sedan in the United States, it was a chance to challenge long-held perceptions of what constitutes luxury.
For Chevy, whose pickup truck ads have long plodded through images of hard labor, it was a chance to demonstrate that there's some excitement down on the ranch after all.
For Toyota, it was a chance to channel the executives at headquarters and declare: We are not boring.
For Chrysler, it was a chance to capitalize on the anticipation that has come to surround its Super Bowl entries, ever since Eminem reminded the world where cars come from.
By and large, they succeeded, said Jim Sanfilippo, an independent marketing consultant and former executive at ad agencies for Ford and Hyundai.
"It seems like just about everybody has figured this thing out in terms of how to refine their work on the Super Bowl and create commercials that work for their brand and that don't lose any of the entertainment value that people expect on the Super Bowl," said Sanfilippo, who previewed several ads in the days before the game. "I really haven't seen bad work so far. It's all well done. The bar definitely raised, year over year, I think."
The big bang
That need to deliver memorable, Super Bowl-worthy entertainment, while also selling a vehicle, took automakers in a few different directions creatively.
With its British villains ad for the F-Type sports car, for example, Jaguar adopted the trappings of Hollywood action-adventure films, celebrities and all, to sell an over-the-top experience of fast cars and roaring engines.
It was the brand's first-ever Super Bowl ad, and Sanfilippo was pleased to see Jaguar take on the challenge of differentiating itself from competing luxury manufacturers.
"The Germans have had it easy for so long that 'German engineering' is almost the object of the sentence," Sanfilippo said. "It's nice to see Jaguar is characterizing itself as defiantly British."
There were the usual tributes to absurdity, of the type that normally come from beer commercials, such as Volkswagen engineers sprouting wings at inopportune times.
Audi competed in that category with its vicious, computer-animated "Doberhuahua." The mission: to explain that the new A3 sedan may be less expensive than other Audis, but it's not a compromise.
However, Sanfilippo said, the spot's zaniness may have gotten in the way of its message. "I'm not quite sure I'm going to walk away from that feeling that this absolutely is a car company that will not compromise on anything," he said. "They spent a lot of time on that Doberhuahua to get me to that message."
Down to earth
Others turned down the volume to convey more down-to-earth messages about safety and human relationships.
Honda's safety-focused spot featuring Bruce Willis and comedian Fred Armisen in mid-hug was crafted to stand out by being simple.
"The point of our ad is to deliver a real, personal, intimate message with no big special effects, no big stereotypical gags, and no big, emotional, anthemic theme-music like you see all the other guys using," said Mike Accavitti, American Honda senior vice president.
"Everybody's going over the top with these giant Hollywood productions. The problem you run into when you talk to folks after the commercials is that there's so much over the top -- and it's not just autos. It's the beverages, the snack foods, it's the insurance, it's everything -- it becomes a blur in the consumers' minds. What we wanted to do was differentiate ourselves from the pack intentionally and hopefully make our commercial more memorable."
'Wink and a smile'
Chevrolet similarly shunned outlandish gags and big-budget effects with its "Romance" spot in which a Silverado HD owner hauls his prize bull to a rendezvous on the ranch. Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer for General Motors, told reporters in a briefing last week that while many brands use shock value to generate buzz, Chevrolet would take a different path for its heavy-duty pickup.
"We want our commercials to have a wink and a smile," Mahoney said.
Hyundai juggled different styles in its "Nice" spot for the Elantra, which featured actor Johnny Galecki from CBS' sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," a cameo from a rambling Richard Lewis and a measured dose of Hollywood-style mayhem.
Steve Shannon, vice president of marketing for Hyundai Motor America, said that while the spot had explosions and wackiness, it also conveyed a message about the entry-level compact.
"We don't think it's enough to just entertain," Shannon said. "You have to communicate a benefit or two about the car. We talk about 'nice handling,' we talk about 'nice ride,' we talk about 'nice acceleration.'"
'Realities of today'
Kia had an especially tough task this year, Sanfilippo said: convincing customers that a brand better known for attractive, affordable cars is capable of fielding a legitimate luxury vehicle, the K900. For that, it recruited Laurence Fishburne, reprising his iconic role as Morpheus, truth-teller and liberator from "The Matrix."
"Getting into the luxury space is very unexpected from Kia," said Michael Sprague, executive vice president of marketing for Kia Motors America. "And we wanted to show consumers that the perceptions of what luxury is, which is based on tradition and heritage, aren't necessarily the realities of today, which is where 'The Matrix' comes in."
A more conventional luxury car commercial showing the car drifting through the desert, for example, would have failed, Sprague said.
"If we had done that, we would have been lost and been considered a copycat," Sprague said. "It's us taking a different approach to what consumers think the reality is out there, and we think the spot works really well."
Year after year, though, it's the resurgent Chrysler Group, now fully integrated with Fiat (whose Maserati brand made a surprise appearance), that bears the inordinately large burden of trying to outdo itself. Under the guidance of Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois, Chrysler has had a three-year run of crafting masterpiece mini-films for its various brands, from its "Born of Fire" blockbuster ad for the Chrysler 200 to the "Farmers" monologue for Ram pickups.
This year, Chrysler mostly stuck to that playbook, calling on rock and folk legend Bob Dylan and his gravelly voice to deliver a stirring monologue on themes of American craftsmanship and automotive exceptionalism, along with another Eminem-style shout-out to Detroit.
Sanfilippo says Francois delivered under pressure. He said the ad's copy channeled Dylan well, and drove home the notion that American-made cars can stand shoulder to shoulder with German beer and Swiss watches as symbols of national industry.
Jeep's 60-second meditation about youthful restlessness and Maserati's 90-second ad for the upcoming Ghibli sedan were similarly ambitious, with the latter spot narrated by a thoughtful child whose vague allusions to Maserati's place in the luxury world become clear only when you see a glimpse of the trident on the grille.
Fiat Chrysler's ad buy alone -- a whopping 4 minutes and 30 seconds of airtime costing an estimated $36 million, based on the average cost of a 30 second spot totaling $4 million -- would require approval at a board meeting at most companies, Sanfilippo said.
"Francois has the hot hand. I mean come on, you have to give the guy props," Sanfilippo said. "Just saying 'Buy American': Our Italian and French friends are teaching us how to say that a little better than we say it."
As in past years, Chrysler kept its ads under tight lock and key to maximize their impact on Game Day. It wasn't until Friday afternoon that Chrysler even confirmed its intention to advertise.
Others, though, released teasers or full ads online days ahead of the game to try to gain viral traction and boost exposure.
Hyundai, for example, released both of its full game-day ads last Monday, earlier than past years and skipping teasers altogether. Shannon says that after reviewing past efforts, Hyundai decided the extra investment involved in producing teaser videos or behind-the-scenes clips for Super Bowl ads wasn't justified by their results.
The strategy hasn't hurt, with Hyundai's "Nice" spot racking up about 12 million views online as of Friday, making it the most-watched automotive Super Bowl spot released before the game, according to online video tracking firm Visible Measures.
Kia released its ad online five days before the game, earlier than it ever has. Sprague says the brand is finding plenty of online appetite for Super Bowl spots from consumers.
"It gives them the opportunity to be the first to see it, and it also gives us an opportunity to spread the word through social media and leverage the investment that we've made in the Sunday night game," he said.
Instead of going for pre-game buzz, Honda wanted to win the battle during and after the game. Before its spot aired in the third quarter, Honda was warming up the crowd with short videos, sent via Twitter, of Willis reacting to the twists of the game, such as Peyton Manning's first-quarter interception.
Other digital extensions of the campaign include homepage takeovers planned this week for ESPN.com and YouTube, as well as a "Rate My Hug" promotion where users can Tweet their pictures of hugs to Bruce Willis and he'll respond.
The extensions are designed to capitalize on the "second screen" phenomenon of people sharing their reactions to major televised events on social media channels, using their mobile phones or tablets.
"It's a great way to leverage the activity that we know is going to take place in the social media space and bring the focus to our message, which is that we're making this great investment in making our cars safer for our customers and that we have safety leadership amongst our competitors," Accavitti said. "It's just smart business and it's a way to leverage that investment that you're making."
Also trying to harness the power of social networks, Ford enlisted employees of its more than 3,000 dealerships to share teaser videos of its 90-second spot, which aired just before kickoff, with their friends via social media. The teaser encouraged recipients to tune in to the ad.
While fewer viewers watch pre-game spots, which makes for cheaper airtime, Ford's digital-savvy marketing chief Jim Farley says the social channels offer a huge potential follow-on audience.
"If we have 3,000-plus dealers and there are 100 employees in each dealership, that's 300,000 employees working in dealerships," Farley said in an interview. "If everyone has 100 friends on Facebook, that's 30 million people. This is not just a program to expose our ad to dealer employees and be nice. We get almost Super Bowl scale by sending it to employees."
Editor's note: Tracking firm Visible Measures says its earlier figure on views for Hyundia's "Nice" add last week were incorrect. The corrected figure is 12 million. The figure in the story has been corrected.
-- Brad Wernle and Mike Colias contributed.