At Game Time, Humor Is the Trick to Selling Cars

December 1, 2006

Early on, it was the big three automakers who found the game with its patriotic overtones and largely male audience, the ideal ad venue. In short order, so did the foreign carmakers. The Super Bowl became America's automobile showroom.

Ford signed on from the start and made frequent pit stops here. In 1982, its Ford Ranger pickup rained from the sky. And the next year's game implanted the "Have you driven a Ford lately" slogan in the American subconscious. Two years later, Willie Nelson crooned "On the Road Again" to pitch trucks. To get Lexus and Acura buyers to consider the Mark VIII, Lincoln urged Super Bowl XXVII viewers to "Drive Everything Else First." In 1995, cables holding a Lincoln Continental aloft suddenly snap. The car that is "the perfect balance of luxury and technology" lands in perfect balance on a floor-mounted pinnacle.

Ford's star may have shone brightest in Super Bowl 1997 when its curvy new F-150 hit town. Its F-series pickups were America's best-selling vehicle for 13 years, and the F-150 had been its most popular model. Now, though, new rounded or "feminine" styling threatened sales. A "Built Ford Tough" ad was designed to dampen that perception. It began literally with a leap: the new F-150 sailed 134.5 feet over 19 earlier models to lead the F-series family of trucks.

Since its debut in the big game in 1995, Honda has relied on a playful, humorous approach to showcase its cars. That year, a villain dropped from a helicopter onto the roof of a speeding Civic del Sol was sent airborne when the couple inside release its removable hard top. A love-sick assembly-line robot falls for the Accord, not just a "car you need...but a car you want" in the 1998 game. Honda launched its Odyssey minivan with the colorful animation of pop artist Keith Harding. To overcome the perception that these were "un-hip mommy-mobiles," a bright blue figure grows up and hooks up with a bright yellow figure to make a brilliant red baby.

In 1997, Honda took the kitchen-table debates-where families argue about what features they want in a new car-a comic step further. A family gathers in an imposing, dark-paneled law office, where each member's attorney negotiates for the interests of his client, including four year old twins, an older sibling and a big dog.

Super Bowl XXI (1987) was notable for the Giants' rout of the Broncos, CBS's record tariff ($600,000 for a half-minute) the huge audience (120 million viewers in 60 countries) and for what may have been the first time on network TV that an advertiser lied in a commercial, and admitted it. American The Super Bowl of Advertising Isuzu Motors didn't begin importing cars to the U.S. until 1981 - long after Toyota and Nissan were established here. In 1986 it asked the Della Femina agency for a local dealership spot. Rather than tack on details like mileage, performance and price to existing film, Della Femina enlisted an lying sleaze ball to spew exaggerated claims - which superimposed captions rebutted. Audiences literally read between the lines.

Desperate to get the cars' selling points heard, Isuzu swallowed misgivings that "Liar" cut too close to the truth of their business and that people distrusted salesman. Joe Isuzu (actor David Leisure) oozing like a punctured tube of toothpaste wildly claimed that "the amazing Isuzu I-Mark gets 94 miles per gallon city, 112 highway." (It's really 34 mpg city, 40 highway," the correction noted.) The Trooper II has "enough cargo space to carry Texas." (The overlay clarifies: "79 Cubic feet of it.") It sells for $9 ("Wrong. Prices start at $6,999.") His Isuzu I-Mark miraculously overtakes a bullet he'd fired from a .357 magnum.

When Leisure showed up at a shoot in a cast-he'd broken his ankle ice-skating-Della Femina placed him in a Formula One racing suit, next to an amusement park bumper car ride. "I had a little problem here at Monte Carlo," he casually admits. The super explained: "He slipped in the bathtub." Most spots ended with his shark smile and guarantee, "You have my word on it."

Joe Isuzu made Isuzu's name memorable and "You have my word on it" part of the vernacular. But news reports declared the cheeky ads ineffective and dealers soon demanded more product-specific, image-lifting ads.

Even before there as a Super Bowl, Chrysler sponsored the old AFL. It's been a super stanchion - from early day "white hat specials" to appearances by Chairman Lee Iacocca. He solicited a $1.5 billion congressional loan guarantee, accused Americans of an inferiority complex about Japanese imports, and in 1975 announced hefty rebates to whittle down the 120-day backlog of new cars. On Super Bowl 1981, Chrysler ran nine spots (more than any other advertiser) to announce it was coming back.

t arrived in full force 13 years later when Neon alighted at the game. Marketed through both Dodge and Plymouth simultaneously, Neon was developed in a "dare to be different environment," said marketing vice president Arthur "Bud" Liebler. "So we pushed the envelope in marketing as well." An hour-long "Road Trip" TV show in December 1993 chronicled the cross-country trek of four Gen-Xers in a spiffy new Neon. Then came teasers that mentioned the car, and hinted at its attributes, but never showed it. Neon was finally revealed in four seemingly simple spots on Super Bowl XXVIII (1994.) In fact, the ads were exquisitely orchestrated to get people to fall for this car that looked cute, cost little, and respected the environment a lot. In one spot, the imposing doors of a huge aircraft hangar slowly grind open to display a Neon as a friendly "hi" flashed on the screen.

A week after the Big Game, Chrysler recalled the car, threatening to gridlock elaborate marketing plans. Instead of lying low, Chrysler pressed forward full throttle with 75 commercials in the Winter Olympics and a computer game based on Star Wars.

Once it was the undisputed symbol of success in America. Then Cadillac devolved into a dowdy symbol of wannabe-ism, pimp-mobility and geriatric driving. The Cimarron, Allante and Seville STS did little to bring back buyers who'd flocked to Lexus , BMW and Mercedes, and Cadillac's share of the luxury car market shrank from over 22 percent to under 15 percent from 1990 to 1996.

The Catera was meant to reverse that slide. In 1997, GM invested $2 million in Super Bowl ads featuring an animated red duck and Cindy Crawford as a bored princess in a medieval castle dressed like a dominatrix in a black leather micro dress and knee-high go-go boots. To add excitement to her life, a red duck wizard presents her with keys to "the car that zigs."

Two weeks after the game, Cadillac killed the Catera ad which critics (including some of GM's own employees) lambasted as sexist.

Two years later Cadillac was back in the game (XXXIII). On the street its new luxury SUV Escalade had become a cool icon for rappers. GM didn't want to alienate those buyers but it also wanted to attract boomers with bulging bankrolls. Another three years passed with sales continuing to slide, and its average customers' age continuing to rise before Cadillac returned to the game, this time to launch the CTS. On Super Bowl XXXVI it used the Led Zeppelin classic "Rock & Roll" as backdrop while drivers of a 1959 Caddy convertible and a new CTS exchange admiring glances before going their separate ways.

During the 1980s era of conspicuous consumption, Porsche sold well. But by 1997, the zeitgeist had changed and ostentatious symbols were out. Porsche used the game to erase some of that imagery. To sell its racy, new $40,000 two-seater Boxer, ads focused more on "what the car actually does than on arrogant posturing about fast it can go," said Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein, Porsche's agency. In the ad the Boxer is assembled by human hands while rivals are put together by soulless robots in clangorous factories.

Since 1960, all advertising for Nissan USA, including a Roy Rogers testimonial, "We are driven" and "Datsun Saves," reinforced the Datsun name. So the company had its work cut out when "Datsun" became Nissan worldwide. Ads on Super Bowls XXI and XXII (1987 and '88) served up an unconventional, soft-sell "Built for the Human Race" theme. Yuppie car designers sat around breezing about human engineering and "little cocoons" that fit consumers' driving habits, alternating with vignettes of drivers and their Nissans. Consumers found them bewildering, unnatural and arrogant and steered clear of the cars.

When Nissan introduced new models, it did so with fresh advertising. As owners gazed lovingly at their Sentras a voice announced, "We understand that a car fulfills a number of human needs, and that transportation is only one of them." More bracing was the futuristic fantasy by movie director Ridley Scott. The owner of a 300ZX Twin Turbo sports car has a surrealistic Blade Runner-esque dream where he and his car elude a menacing motorcyclist, a professional race car and even a Hawker Hunter fighter jet. It did not elude critics' censure, however. More than a dozen groups representing insurers and pediatricians complained that it glamorized speed and reckless driving. Nissan held its ground contending that the ad was clearly fanciful. It ran in Super Bowl 1990.

To jolt Nissan's fuzzy image into focus, Nissan okayed two far-fetched concepts for the 1995 game. GI Joe rolls up to a dollhouse in a snazzy 300ZX to lure Barbie away from a dejected Ken doll. A mystical bemused Japanese man, Mr. K. introduces a young boy to the history of Nissan cars. The spot could have alienated xenophobes. And its ethereal slogan "Life is a Journey; Enjoy the Ride" could have recalled Nissan's earlier derided "rocks and trees" ads for its Infiniti. Mr. K. did neither but in Super Bowl 1997 Nissan was back to daredevilry. Three menacing puppet pigeons in flight goggles, helmets and parachutes, cruise the neighborhood looking to make trouble. They spy a new, black Maxima and diabolically "leave their mark."

The people's car arrived here from Germany in 1959 with the exhortation to "Think Small." But in 2001, Volkswagen opted to think big, very big. After its appearance on the traffic-choked Super Bowl in 1989 barely moved the needle for the Jetta, Golf and GTI models, VW waved off the game. But when other automakers drove away because of the sour economy in 2001, Volkswagen rolled in, the sole car advertiser that year.

Three "Drivers Wanted" spots introduced three new models. All had surprise endings; all were wry, witty and gently absurd, which is to say, classic Volkswagen. Take for example the wordless Jetta VR6 spot "Big Day." A guy driving nervously checks his watch at a railroad crossing. Wedding bells peal. He arrives at the church on time - to cause havoc for his ex-girlfriend about to tie the knot.

Other kinds of vehicles also took to this field. For instance, in 1992 Yamaha introduced its Royal Star motorcycle here. A biker on a desert road rolls into an abandoned gas station where three ghost riders of old float around the vehicle, admiring it. And in the 2000 game, Gus, the driver of a luxurious Volvo truck, explains that his rig has made him so successful that he has a butler! ("Your toothpick, sir.")

Car rental firms also recognized that business travelers were watching. In 1994, Alamo spent $4 million on a 90 second spot showing a fictitious family on a 34 year journey through all 4,137,000 miles in Alamo territory. They pause only to eat, sleep and have children.

The game has also been a showcase for automotive related products. To suggest that its heavy duty 4X4 Quaker State motor oil was made for hard-working engines, in the 1995 game a quart blasts off the shelf and roars around a store on oversized wheels, easily negotiating such obstacles as ice and mountainous terrain.

Despite inroads, buying tires (like beer) remains "a guy thing." And even when women make the purchases, it's often their men who specify what to buy. From the start Goodyear understood that, and that the Super Bowl was a forum to reach men. Early on it used testimonials and musical productions to stay top of mind. But what really sent it soaring was its blimp. The Airship Eagle literally provided aerial coverage and it made the Goodyear name stand out in tire buyers' minds.

Goodyear has had over 300 blimps in the past century, the first built in 1912 for military surveillance. In 1925, the company decided to also use it promotionally and from 1967 until 1996 it has floated lazily above the skies of every Super Bowl scrimmage except three, downed by wintry weather in Pontiac, Michigan and Minneapolis, and fears of terrorism in Tampa, Fla. In the movie "Black Sunday," it's a Goodyear blimp that terrorists commandeer to launch an aerial attack on a packed NFL stadium. The "last American-owned tire company" as its ads boast, even secretly treated jurors sequestered for the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 to a day in the sky. The $12 million a year to maintain its current fleet of three blimps pales compared to the publicity value it gets from hovering above big televised events..

Goodyear had the skies to itself for years, but those skies got less friendly as Met Life, Gulf Oil and then Fuji Film and Sea World horned in. In 1987 Pepsi cut a deal with CBS for its Slice blimp to be the official airship above Pasadena. By 1993, five other commercial blimps had caught on to this high flying act. In 1996, Anheuser Busch punctured Goodyear's sails by securing an aerial monopoly from NBC, relegating Goodyear to pre and post game ceremonies.

Goodyear also tried to wow viewers on land. Tires are a low interest "distress purchase." Typical ads show a family in a car on a dark night suddenly facing a truck careening towards them to demonstrate the tire's reliability and flexibility on all surfaces. In Super Bowl XXVII (1993), Goodyear demonstrated traction in a new way. It showed a water-skier pulled by a car driving through water to illustrate how its Aquatred tires prevent hydroplaning.

In Super Bowl 1994 Goodyear added more skiers pulled by more cars to showcase its new dual-aqua channel tire, and in 1995 pre and post game coverage, introduced its Wrangler Aquatred by showing a car pulling a skier to a ski jump flooded with water.

"Giving consumers a warm and fuzzy feeling, was not enough," explained Barry Robbins, marketing VP. "They want us to show them how our tire is better." Doing it on the Super Bowl required a super dramatic demonstration. By 1997, however, Goodyear had had years of flat sales. It moved from promoting wet traction superiority to promote "serious freedom" in ads awash in pop music, flashy cars and sex appeal. And it moved away from the Super Bowl to support racing events more akin to its product.

Michelin also took to the field to convince men that its tires were worth their premium price. Because regulations stringently governed what could be said about superior quality, it implied that the tires protected better by raising the stakes of what it was protecting. Babies were the simple, emotionally involving, relevant symbol of what needs protecting. In Super Bowl XIX (1985) diaper draped "Amy" plays on a tire as mom asks her husband why his car has Michelins but hers doesn't. "But sweetheart they cost more...I drive to work, out of town...all you use your car for is shopping, driving Amy around...." Once he realizes the value of that cargo he vows to get her a set pronto.

"Because so much is riding on your tires" evolved into a simple tot ‘n tire formula: parents debated the price/value ratio of Michelins as their wee ones frolicked on tires. By 1989 Michelin had jumped from fourth to second place in the U.S. market share. It had become a brand that customers asked for at dealerships. But in 2002, Michelin bid bye-bye to the baby and DDB which birthed her and rehired the Michelin Man. Drivers "wanted more than safety in tires - they wanted performance and that wasn't coming across to the prime target -high sport market and light duty trucks," said Bill Ludwig, CEO at  Michelin's agency, Campbell-Ewald. The anthropomorphic pile of tires is still cool and relevant, he said, and it's proprietary to Michelin and identifiable with the brand in ways babies are not.

Super Plays/Take-Away
Cars have routinely driven onto this advertising field because they instantly reach a huge audience and attract instant attention to a model with a short sales window. Getting a car widespread recognition is a first step to getting it on a customer's consideration set. But windy roads and pylons don't work here. Humor and outer-edge demos of specific features do.

For years Goodyear produced an effect that was is more than hot air by surrounding the game with a novel, marketable concept in its blimp. That's the kind of creative thinking that worked for years at this advertising showcase.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.