With Traffic Jam in Super Bowl, Can Any Auto Brand Win?

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Hurdle Is Much Higher to Make Ads Stand Out in What’s So Far an Eight-Car Pileup

By Rupal Parekh and Brian Steinberg

NEW YORK — When Americans tune into the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, they should expect to see as much metal as they do pigskin.

Car marketers, having woken from their recession-induced ad slumber, are doubling down for Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas and setting the bar sky high for auto companies and their ad agencies to craft commercials unique enough to break through the clutter and capture viewers’ attention.

Although car ads have long been a staple of the Big Game — the premier U.S. TV broadcast that commands as much as $3 million per ad — 2011 is shaping up to be the biggest auto-ad showdown in recent memory. As of press time, at least eight different auto manufacturers had purchased airtime. What’s more, many of them are buying more ad time than they have in the past, and raising the ante with two or three commercials sprinkled throughout the broadcast.

Six car makers ran a combined five minutes and 30 seconds worth of ads in Super Bowl XLIV, up from five manufacturers running three minutes worth of commercials in 2009, according to WPP’s Kantar Media.

Ad Age last week broke the news that BMW North America will return to the game after a decade, seeking to use the Super Bowl as a stage to launch a new slate of cars. General Motors, which had sat the past two games out, is back in with a focus on Chevrolet, top marketer Joel Ewanick told Ad Age earlier this year. Chrysler, the only U.S. automaker to show up in the last Super Bowl broadcast with a single ad for Dodge, is back in and this time wants at least two brands in the game, according to people familiar with the matter. Audi of America is making its fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance and will be in the game’s first commercial break.

Volkswagen, which aired one Super Bowl ad the last time around, will return with the purchase of an additional spot. Kia, which last ran a 30-second spot, will run a 60-second ad in Super Bowl XLV, while Hyundai Motor America will air three ads — one more than it did in 2010. Mercedes-Benz will air one 60-second spot in the fourth quarter from Merkley & Partners, timed because the company has four new product launches next year and it is the 125th anniversary of the brand. “We’re up nearly 20% and want to ride that wave … it’s a good way to start the year,” said Donna Boland, corporate communications manager at Mercedes Benz USA.

For many of these show-the-metal marketers, “it depends on what you want out of the day,” said Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which now serves as the agency for Chevrolet, but two Super Bowls ago crafted Hyundai’s ads. “The Hyundai Assurance spots wouldn’t have won the USA Today ad meter, but they were certainly written about in the wake of the Super Bowl a lot. There are also things like “Angry Bosses” [an ad that aired in Super Bowl 2009] which did do well on the polls because it was designed to be something people remembered, laughed at, talked about.”

Said Mr. Goodby: “I hope we do a combination of the two things we talked about — a big idea and some things that are really fun to watch and memorable. I feel really good about having Chevy as a brand to do this with because they have a distinctive identity and brand to build on.”