I've enjoyed reading the controversies that surround the Super Bowl advertising space. As someone who loves football and is also a marketing professional, I feel that the Super Bowl is really the supreme event of my first quarter -- combining what's hopefully the ultimate gridiron match-up and also the "best of the best" in terms of advertising. And, like all viewers, professional and armchair, I love being a critic of what I see.

As a former marketing executive who green-lighted ads in the big game, I try to be objective and thoughtful. While it is exciting to get an ad in there, it's also really nerve racking to wait for the hordes of critiques that follow Monday morning.

This year, much like last, the blogs and papers are lighting up with commentary from people everywhere on the "TARP-takers", or "TARPies" as I like to call them, Super Bowl ad buys.

Last year General Motors opted out of the big game because of the economic issues facing America and the fact that they likely knew that bankruptcy was all but a reality by that point. This year, while things are not necessarily good, they are at least looking like they are not getting worse.

Chrysler (another TARPie) is dipping its toe back into the shark tank that is the Super Bowl ad venue, fresh with support under its new Italian management. According to AdAge, they chose to feature the Dodge Charger. Five years ago, it was the Magnum...I know because I was there.

That Magnum "monkey" ad, as I refer to it, was not our best effort. It was so over-thought and over-edited that it lost most of what it was supposed to be. And, truth be told, it was NOT the one (nor the vehicle) the agency nor I wanted to run, but sometimes even the most persuasive arguments didn't work on the upper echelon of the DaimlerChrysler offices. The point of this is only to illustrate that the ad that runs does not always reflect the intention, especially if the decision makers are many and the position unclear. Such are the issues I see facing Dodge in this years Super Bowl.

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I actually think that the idea of Chrysler advertising in the game is not a terrible one, and maybe even good one. They DO need to remind people that they exist and that they have cars that some people might actually want. However, to be successful in this platform, you have to be on top of your game and I do not think that they are yet. Recently their head of marketing spoke about what we should expect from their Super Bowl ad.

"It looks like the ad we have today," Chrysler's Olivier Francois told Automotive News. "It sends a message of irreverence, passion for cars and fun to drive."

That's not really very inspiring. Also, since Ram has left the Dodge fold, I do not know exactly what the rest of the line-up stands for...is it sort of what Dodge used to stand for sans tough and rugged? Who knows.

But I do know that they would be better served showcasing the best of what Dodge is about (which may include more than just the Charger) with a clear and hopefully super entertaining wrapping around it so that it stands out and hopefully gets us to act. And even better than that, it would be a great idea if they had new products on the ground or coming that were game changers...but they don't, at least not this year.

And that leads me to my second point: the digital connection. I really hope that they have a great hook in there that compels people to engage offline in some way to gain leads at best and perception shifts to the better at the least. Without it, I would go so far as to say that the ad buy could actually hurt them as the crowds that are opposed to "TARPies" spending "our" hard-earned tax money to buy Super Bowl ads are just waiting for an excuse to prove that it was a huge mistake that requires repercussions.

There are other non TARPies that are advertising and I kind of like what I am hearing. Suzanne Vranica from the Wall Street Journal reported that Kia is running a spot for its 2011 Sorento. Mike Sprague, VP of Marketing, and a friend and past colleague of mine from Ford, has said that they are trying to reach younger parents with small kids who want a sporty ride. They are emboldened by the fact that they are coming off a great year growing share by almost 10% in 2009 (according to Autodata). In this case, the risks are smaller because it's not taxpayer cash and also they had a great year. Whether enough moms with small kids will see the ad and be convinced will remain to be seen, but I am optimistic.

Hyundai is back this year after launching their "Assurance Program," in last year's Super Bowl ad which promised consumers they could return their cars if they lost their jobs within a year after purchase. I LOVED this for Hyundai last year. We were in the midst of a debilitating recession and Hyundai was just starting to tell its story. With this program, they not only improved the image of their company by launching a program that really helped where people needed it the most, but they also improved the perception of their vehicles. Better than that, they have not abandoned the program in the "launch 'em and leave 'em" fashion that is so common in auto land.

VW will join CBS's big game ad roster too. Nine years after their last Super Bowl ad, they will run what we used to call a "portfolio brand spot" where they will showcase their entire line-up of vehicles to remind people of all that VW offers. What I like is that they are leaning on past VW car culture with the "slug bug" or "punch bug" concept in this new spot. Recalling a feel-good idea that they so clearly own like "slug bug" will play well with Boomers, Gen X-ers and Y-ers alike. Can't wait to see this one.

Audi and Honda are in this year as well, but Toyota opted out, stating that the Super Bowl "doesn't align with any of Toyota's marketing initiatives" this year. I think that is smart. Was it Kenny Rogers who said, "Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em"? Let's hope the automakers show a strong hand this year.


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