The auto industry’s $100 million bet on winning the Super Bowl


As you settle into watch Super Bowl XLVIII, we hope you enjoy some football with your car commercials.

This year's game will feature roughly 12 minutes of ads from at least eight automakers, from Kia to Jaguar, all of whom will spend millions trying to turn the talk of the dip bowl into actual sales. One automaker, Volkswagen, has set up a "war room" of social media first responders to make sure Twitter and Facebook fills with the proper message about its "Wings" spot.

Last year, automakers bought $92 million of the $292 million worth of Super Bowl advertising time, with the total hitting more than $100 million including the pre- and post-games, according to Kantar Media. Kantar expects the car business to repeat as the biggest ad buyer of Super Bowl time in 2014 for the fourth straight year, with movie studios and dot-com companies following far behind.

That's just the cost of the air space; actual production for the ads can run between $2 million and $10 million per spot, especially with celebrities involved. And while final totals for the this year's game won't be available until after all the ads air, the tally will be higher, with more automakers and an inflation in the price of a 30-second spot can to as much as $6 million.

The automakers have already shown many of the ads they're planning; of them, the most popular so far has been Audi's "Doberhuahua" spot, although Jaguar's "Villains" ad above featuring Sir Ben Kingsley, Tom Hiddleston and Mark Strong has more buzz and a better pitch for the Jaguar F-Type Coupe. Like VW's war room, Jaguar will not only flood social media during the game, but even change its other advertising to follow the buzz. And Kia has unveiled its 2-minute commercial for its new K900 luxury sedan with Laurence Fishburne reprising his role of Morpheus from "The Matrix."

Why the blitz? Every automaker sees the same math pushing them towards the big game. This year, the industry expects to sell 16.3 million vehicles. Of those, roughly a third will get bought by rental fleets, businesses and governments who can drive the hardest bargains on pricing. That leaves about 11.5 million high-margin retail customers for the entire year spread over 300 models on the market, a small crowd by most mass-marketing standards. Between declining TV ratings and general immunity to marketing, there's no other TV event where an automaker can hope to reach most of its customers for the next 12 months with one ad pitch — making $6 million for 30 seconds seem like a bargain.

Of course, some automakers also look further into the future, trying to build a mood and lifestyle around their brand. All of the farmers who actually bought a Ram pickup after Chrysler's two-minute ad with Paul Harvey's "God Made A Farmer" speech last year could probably fit in a few sections of MetLife Stadium. But Harvey's voice worked like a dog whistle on millions of Midwesterners, regardless of where they live now — and in the months since, Ram has successfully raised its stature among pickup tire-kickers.

It's also overkill. One advertising research firm, Communicus, told AdAge that 60 percent of Super Bowl ads fail to result in any measurable increase in sales, especially among car ads. An exception: last year's Mercedes-Benz spot with Willem Dafoe as the devil, which Communicus says worked because it introduced both a new model (the CLA-Class) and a new message (you can buy a Mercedes for less than $30,000.)

To maximize the buzz, more automakers have held back this year: Ford's spot with James Franco won't be seen until before the game, and Chrysler won't confirm it's shot one for the new 200 sedan featuring Bob Dylan, saying Friday it would reveal three ads throughout the game. Even the stoic Chevy brand has a secret spot hoping to keep viewers from using commercial time for bathroom breaks. As Jeff Curry, brand vice president for Jaguar North America says, "We hope viewers turn the volume up."