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Auto Industry Hits the Brakes on Super Bowl Ads

After years of driving advertising into the Super Bowl, automotive marketers appear to have reversed course.

NBC still has eight to ten 30-second spots left to sell for its 2015 broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX, and has sold about 90% of the inventory available for its February 1 broadcast, according to Seth Winter, executive vice president of sales for both NBC Sports and NBCUniversal News Group. Yet the going has been tougher this year, he said, as the most-watched program on TV has fallen victim to some of the same marketplace forces that have crimped TV advertising this season – and is seeing a retreat  by some of the car sponsors who have supported it in recent years with copious amounts of advertising.

“If you are an auto advertiser, you are in exceptionally clean space” for 2015, said Winter. “We see fewer than half of what we had” in 2012, the last time NBC broadcast the Super Bowl, he added. “We would be in a far, far more accelerated sell-out if the automotives were just kind of advertising where they were.”

The car-ad slowdown comes as several large automakers grapple with safety issues. General Motors has recalled cars with ignition-switch problems linked to fatalities while a number of car makers have been affected by faulty airbags manufactured by Takata Corp.

The last three Super Bowl broadcasts turned into something of a commercial traffic jam, thanks to ad upon ad for cars and trucks, and, sometimes, car-related services like Cars.com and CarMax. In 2011, for example, BMW North America and General Motors returned to the Super Bowl after sitting on the sidelines, and were joined by Chrylser, Audi of America, Hyundai Motor America and Mercedes-Benz. Six different manufacturers spent $77.5 million to hawk nine kinds of cars, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. The numbers only increased in 2012, when seven different manufacturers spent $94.5 million to promote 12 different vehicles. In 2013, six companies spent $92 billion to tout 9 kinds of rides.

As a result, viewers were treated to all kinds of colorful promotional ploys. Volkswagen’s created a popular 2011 spot featuring a young boy clothed as Darth Vader that won many fans’ hearts. The car maker sparked a new trend by making the commercial available on YouTube before it appeared on TV. Now the bulk of Super Bowl advertisers employ the technique, the better to stoke buzz on social media. Chrysler also gained notice during the period, running ads that took up a whopping two minutes’ worth of air time. One mammoth 2011 spot featured a song from Eminem to serve notice that Detroit was bouncing back from a period of economic malaise. In 2012, Clint Eastwood declared that America was ready to emerge from a metaphorical halftime. And Bob Dylan, of all people, appeared in 2014, hawking the virtues of buying an American-made car.

Now activity is cooling. A spokeswoman for General Motors said the company, which has been one of the Super Bowl’s most regular sponsors over the years, has not finalized its Super Bowl plans. Chrysler and Audi declined to comment. A Hyundai spokesperson did not respond immediately to a query seeking comment. Mercedes-Benz will advertise in next year’s game, the company disclosed to The New York Times last week, but Jaguar, a first-time advertiser in 2014, has already decided not to return for a second effort.

Even the Super Bowl, it seems, is not immune from a slowdown in advertising. TV sponsors have held more tightly to their dollars in the current TV season, with media companies including Discovery Communications and Comcast revealing in recent earnings announcements a less active advertising market. The slowdown in ad coin comes as more advertisers emphasize advertising alongside streaming video, on mobile devices and in social media. The industry’s recent “upfront” market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season, was sluggish, with advertisers committing fewer dollars in advance to both broadcast and cable.

“There is a lot of desire for flexibility on the part of advertisers, and they are doing a lot of their investment on a much more ‘close-in’ basis,” said NBCU’s Winter. “We see that as well in the Super Bowl. I’m confident that a lot of it will pick up in the next two months.”

Technology advertising in the game is also weak, Winter said, even though that category has been a robust supporter of the current NFL season. Anheuser-Busch InBev remains an advertising stalwart., Winter said he has seen an influx of  sponsors new to the game, including Loctite, a maker of adhesives owned by consumer-products giant Henkel and Mophie, a maker of mobile-device accessories. This category has bought 15 ad slots for 2015, he said. McDonald’s is said to be considering an ad in next year’s contest, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The more deliberate sales pace has come as the price of Super Bowl advertising has increased noticeably in recent years. Live sports are one of few types of programming that continue to draw truly massive TV audiences who otherwise have splintered around new ways to watch video like streaming on mobile devices or playing something back on a digital video recorder.

Fox sought around $4 million for a 30-second ad in its 2014 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII, and did not complete sales until the week before Thanksgiving. NBC has been seeking $4.5 million for the same in 2015 (or, in a relative bargain, just $4.4 million for sponsors who buy multiple spots). NBCU has sought an additional commitment of $4.5 million for other kinds of advertising across the company as part of the deal.

“We have gotten no indication that price has been an impediment to any advertising,” said Winter. As part of its outreach to Madison Avenue, NBCU has armed its salespeople with research showing that the exposure that results from a Super Bowl ad and the social-media and digital playback it typically worth $9 million to $10 million, Winter said.

The executive said ad sales for NBCU’s planned live streaming of the Super Bowl on NBCSports.com were pacing alongside the TV broadcast. Only a handful of Super Bowl sponsors will be offered inventory for the digital play, he said. NBCU will broadcast the game in Spanish on cable outlet NBC Universo and intends to offer Super Bowl-related programming across its various networks, including NBCSN, in the week leading up to the gridiron classic.

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