Celebrities, cars star in automaker Super Bowl 50 ads

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Expect talking bears, singing sheep and lots of celebrities on commercials from automakers Sunday during Super Bowl 50.

At least eight auto brands will air 10 ads spanning eight minutes during this year’s game between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos on CBS. With each 30-second spot estimated at about $5 million, automakers are pulling out all the stops to stand out.

“The automakers are really competitive and it’s a reason to look forward to the game,” said Michigan State University advertising and public relations professor Robert Kolt, a specialist in Super Bowl ads. “I think the auto ads really stick out as best-in-class.”

Acura, Audi, Buick, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mini and Toyota all will air at least one commercial. Sitting on the sidelines are Ford, Volkswagen and others. Super Bowl trend-setter Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is once again being coy about its plans.

All brands except Toyota and newcomer Buick have released their commercials online prior to the game, as they get as much traction as they can for the millions of dollars they are spending.

“We’re looking to connect with consumers before, during and after the Super Bowl,” Michael Sprague, Kia Motors America executive vice president and chief operating officer, told The Detroit News. “We’ve always found that it’s helped to amplify our campaign, and really get the word out before the game.”

Kia’s 60-second ad features a quirky Christopher Walken with a colorful sock on his hand for the 2017 Kia Sedona. The spot — Kia’s seventh-consecutive Super Bowl ad — is called “Walken Closet”: The actor surprises a man in a walk-in closet for a lesson about not living life as a beige sock, which then translates to the vehicle he drives.

“There was nobody else in our mind that could fit that role,” Sprague said. Kia has in recent years chosen well-known people to make its pitch, including Pierce Brosnan and Laurence Fishburne.

BMW AG’s Mini brand packs six celebrities — tennis icon Serena Williams, two-time Olympic soccer gold medalist Abby Wambach, musician T-Pain, actor Harvey Keitel and athletes Randy Johnson and Tony Hawk — into a 30-second spot titled “Defy Labels.” In the spot for the new Mini Clubman, they and others push viewers to not pay attention to labels.

“This creative is all about not letting others define you, or for that matter, what you choose to drive,” said John Butler, chief creative officer of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, which created the ad. “It’s about never giving others that power over you.”

Hyundai features actors Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart separately in two of its three Super Bowl ads, including one immediately before kickoff. All three of the automaker’s ads — totaling two minutes — are centered on vehicle technology: Hart as an overprotective father keeping track of his daughter; Reynolds in a world of his own called “Ryanville”; and an escape from talking bears with the help of voice-controlled starter.

Buick tapped New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and actress/model Emily Ratajkowski (“Gone Girl”) for a 30-second spot for the Cascada convertible.

Others include a flock of sheep singing Queen’s “Somebody to Love” in a 60-second commercial for the Honda Ridgeline pickup; Acura pitching its NSX supercar in a 30-second ad with Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” as a soundtrack; a 60-second spot set to David Bowie’s “Starman” that tells the story of a retired astronaut who rediscovers his lust for life with the Audi R8; and an unreleased 60-second spot for the Toyota Prius.

Automakers also will have a large presence through regional advertising as dealership groups and others scoop up time slots for less money.

“It’s been years since Ford advertised during the Super Bowl ... but if you take a look at local markets, Ford dealership association groups and in some case Ford factory are very active,” said Kantar Media Chief Research Officer Jon Swallen.

The biggest question is what Fiat Chrysler will do? The company, under the leadership of Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois, has been the heaviest hitter since its acclaimed 2011 “Born of Fire” ad with Eminem introduced the “Imported From Detroit” tagline.

Francois last month said the company was still discussing if it would advetise during the game. However the executive said the same thing a year ago before airing three ads that combined for 31/2 for the Fiat 500X, Dodge brand and Jeep Renegade.

A Fiat Chrysler spokeswoman Wednesday night said there was no update available regarding the company’s plans.

New vehicles that Fiat Chrysler could tap for a Super Bowl spot include the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia midsize sedan, 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan and 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. However the automaker hasn’t always used a vehicle, instead opting to spotlight the entire company; think back to in 2012’s “Halftime in America,” a patriotic ad with Clint Eastwood.

Market research firm Kantar Media reports that over the past 10 years, Fiat Chrysler has been the third-biggest spender during the Super Bowl: Anheuser-Busch InBev is tops at a combined $278.3 million; Pepsico Inc. spent $172 million; Fiat Chrysler spent $139.9 million; Coca-Cola Co. spent $118.4 million; and General Motors Co. spent $86.8 million.

In 2015 alone, nine auto brands spent nearly $97 million for 11 ads that accounted for more than one-fifth of ad time.

Kolt doesn’t expect Fiat Chrysler to disappoint this year: “They’ve got a great track record of doing terrific, trend-setting ads. The expectation for Fiat Chrysler is really high.”