At the Super Bowl, carmakers are back in the game

NEW YORK/DETROIT Fri Jan 14, 2011 4:18pm EST

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NEW YORK/DETROIT (Reuters) - Viewers can be forgiven for assuming Super Bowl XLV is being played in Detroit.

Next month's National Football League championship game, which actually takes place just outside Dallas, Texas, features advertising campaigns from no less than eight major car companies. Some have bought more than one spot for the February 6 game on News Corp's Fox Broadcasting, the year's biggest U.S. media event.

"Any way you cut it, it's an auto extravaganza," said George Cook, a professor at University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business and a former Ford Motor Co executive. "It's about assuring the American car buyer that the industry has returned. It's about winning back trust."

In advertising circles, where the struggles of carmakers have been deeply felt, the hope is that this signals a better 2011. General Motors Co, a major client, sat out the last two Super Bowls as part of deep cutbacks in its marketing budget. Now it is back with five spots.

"We think it's a great opportunity given where we've been, how competitive the market is right now," said Joel Ewanick, GM's global chief marketing officer. "We wanted to start the new year very strong, very aggressive."

Overall, carmakers should account for roughly twice as much commercial time as they did in 2010's Super Bowl. It's a jump that reflects the improving fortunes of the U.S. auto industry, which snapped a four-year sales decline in 2010. The recovery is gradual in the United States, yet most analysts now expect double-digit auto sales growth in 2011.

The Super Bowl is a chance for the industry to make its pitch to about 95 million viewers, most of whom will watch the game live, a rarity in the age of digital video recorders.

As a result, roughly a quarter of all the commercial time will be taken up by carmakers including GM, Chrysler Group LLC, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai Motor Co, its affiliate Kia Motors Corp, Volkswagen AG and its Audi unit, are expected to be among the advertisers.

JUST ANOTHER CAR COMMERCIAL

Advertising in the Super Bowl is hardly a sure bet for any company, much less an automaker, given the price of commercial time. Fox charged an estimated $2.8 million and $3 million for 30-second spots in this year's Super Bowl, after last year's game drew the biggest America TV audience in history.

Considering the auto industry's well-documented troubles, there are questions over how consumers will react to companies that spent up to $100,000 each second for advertising.

"If the ads seem frivolous, almost indulgent. if anything comes across that way in this environment, that will be a big problem," said Gaston Legorburu, executive director and worldwide chief creative officer at agency SapientNitro.

He any others also caution that a formulaic auto ad -- sedans zipping past cones or SUVs barreling over snowdrifts -- would be quickly forgotten in this year's flood of auto commercials.

"We've got so many of them," said Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Kellogg School of Management. "When you have that many in the same category, in the same space, differentiating yourself becomes really critical."

There will be notable absences in Super Bowl XLV, too, including Ford. The second-largest U.S. car company last ran a Super Bowl commercial in 2006, a "Kermit the Frog" spot for the Escape Hybrid.

"For us, it's go left when others are going right," said Matt VanDyke, Ford's director of U.S. marketing communications. Instead, Ford bought a spot in the Super Bowl pregame show.

Tim Morrison, corporate marketing communications manager for the U.S. division of Japan's Toyota Motor Corp, also pointed to the difficulty of standing out against so much competition. Toyota is also skipping the game.

"My contention is if you're going to go to the Super Bowl you'd better build a spot specifically for Super Bowl, because you're going to be evaluated against our beverage friends and others. It's a tricky premise," he said.

Other advertisers this year include brewer Anheuser Busch InBev SA, typically the game's biggest advertiser; PepsiCo Inc; Coca-Cola Co; CareerBuilder, Yum Brands Inc's Pizza Hut; and Best Buy Co Inc.

(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn)

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