Auto Brands’ Super Bowl Spots Dominated by Drive-By Celebs

Industry has gotten notably more creative in the past decade

Audi, Hyundai and Jeep Super Bowl ads
Audi, Hyundai and Jeep were among the auto brands that took a risk with their Super Bowl spots this year.
Audi, Hyundai, Jeep

A sedan whipping through city blocks, pavement glistening in the rain. A row of trucks driving in V-formation across the copper earth of the American southwest. An SUV, adorned with a bright red bow, dusted lightly with snow.

We’ve all seen these commercials.

“Almost every single car commercial looks like every other car commercial,” said Christie Nordhielm, a marketing professor at Georgetown University. “You could literally take the brand name out of one and put it on another. … It’s the same thing over and over again.”

Although the auto industry has stretched its creative legs in the past decade (see dancing Kia hamsters or Vader Kid), a combination of the price and complexity of cars has led to a more risk-averse attitude in marketing them. Creatives can be asked to include every angle of the car, how it drives, its new features, allowing very little flexibility within the confines of a 30-second spot.

“It used to be about pushing sheet metal—here’s how the car looks going down the road,” said Don Lupo, director of marketing for ThinkLA. “Automakers are much more open to creativity and storytelling now.”

That’s especially true during the Super Bowl, when brands get a chance to kick their shoes off and play.

“We want to get [audiences] thinking about cars in a new way, not so much the zero to 60 horsepower, torque, those kinds of spec elements of a car which are … not maybe as important as they used to be,” said Kimberley Gardiner, the CMO of Mitsubishi North America. “You have to communicate as much about the product itself. … It’s a pretty complicated customer journey.”

During the Super Bowl, the auto industry is competing with much cheaper consumer products like a can of Pepsi, only 99 cents at any self-respecting convenience store.

“The challenge with cars is that you have the whole rational side—your horsepower, your towing capacity—and you have the emotional side. Everyone’s trying to find that formula of how much we need because you need to tell a story,” said Deborah Wahl, General Motors’ CMO. Wahl wouldn’t comment on GM’s Super Bowl commercial this year—Adweek’s interviewed her before the game—but she did say the Big Game was a “totally different animal.”

This year’s batch was all about (ahem) drive-by celebrities, a risk that worked for some brands (Jeep) and fell flat for others (Hummer).

“The danger with any celebrity advertising is that the viewer remembers the celebrity and not the brand. This danger looms large [this year],” said Nordhielm. “They’re trying to get the attention of millennials … they are targeted towards a younger audience.”

Audi 

Maisey Williams lets it go in Audi’s spot for its electric e-tron model. Williams weaves through traffic and the surrounding chaos of Los Angeles without the (literal) exhaustion of her peers on the road. Are we letting go of fossil fuels or road rage. Although Williams is able to hit the high notes, one wonders if the novelty of the spot will be remembered over the actual electronic vehicle. It wasn’t clear if Williams was letting go of fossil fuels or road rage. The Disneyesque singing sign was a nice touch, though.

Genesis 

The second Hyundai brand to advertise during the game, Genesis turned to Adweek’s Brand Visionary Chrissy Teigen and her husband John Legend. Even though the car doesn’t appear until 40 seconds into the ad, Genesis nailed the spot, a faux wake for “old luxury.” Teigen showed a bit of the patented self-depreciation that keeps the couple relatable—”I saw you in the waiting room”—and the rapport between the felt natural. We also saw every angle of the SUV.

GMC

Anticipation was already high for the return of the (electric) Hummer. Emphasizing the vehicle’s quiet motor, the brand went with silence for most of its ad. It seems inconceivable GMC would hire one of the world’s most famous athletes, Lebron James, and have him do almost nothing but dunk a basketball and say a tag.

Hyundai

Even though the celebrity factor is a bit heavy-handed here with at least four different cameos from John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch, Chris Evans and David Ortiz, Hyundai still managed to highlight its new product, Smart Park (Smaaat Paaaak) without fear of being buried by its spokespeople.

Jeep

Another highly anticipated spot, Bill Murray’s return to Punxsutawney, Pa., for the new Jeep Gladiator. Even though Murray’s career spans four decades, it’s his first-ever commercial. A revival of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” Murray embraces the magical realism that forces him to relive the same day over and over again, with help from Jeep and his pal, Punxsutawney Phil.  With the tagline, “No day is the same in a Jeep,” the ad will easily become the most memorable of the night.

Kia

Doubling down on its charitable efforts from last year, Kia promised to donate $1,000 for every yard gained during the game to charities focused on youth homelessness. The brand turned to Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs as its spokesperson, notable because Jacobs grew up homeless on the streets of Tulsa, Okla. Between cuts of Kia’s new Seltos, Jacob’s delivers a tearjerking speech to a younger version of himself. A poignant break from every other ad this year.

Toyota

Cinematic and witty, Colbie Smothers saved the day in Toyota’s “Save Yourself” spot, giving sacrificial heroes a new lease on life and emphasizing the Toyota Highlanders’ spacious cabin. The effortless spot gives ample time to the Highlander while telling a simple yet clever story.

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