By G. Chambers Williams III, The Tennessean
As the biggest sports event of the year approaches and advertisers queue up to spend a record $4 million per half-minute to advertise on the ubiquitous TV broadcast, some companies with close ties to Tennessee have decided to take a pass on this year's advertising frenzy.
Nashville-based Bridgestone Tires has abandoned its sponsorship of the Super Bowl halftime show for 2013, turning it over to Pepsi, and also has chosen not to advertise at all during the big game, although it remains the "official tire of the NFL."
General Motors, which has two major assembly plants in the Nashville area, also is a Super Bowl dropout this year, after several years of prominence among the advertisers. Its GMC brand, though, remains the "official vehicle of the NFL."
Franklin-based Nissan North America is sitting out the game, too, although it hasn't participated recently anyway, officials there noted.
But Volkswagen - whose plant in Chattanooga produces the midsize Passat sedan - says it's definitely "in" for the Super Bowl, as is its luxury brand, Audi.
Despite rampant speculation to the contrary, Bridgestone said that the obscene gesture made by female British rapper M.I.A. during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show had no bearing on the company's decision to drop its sponsorship of the event for 2013, which would have been the last year of its five-year contract.
"That had nothing to do with it," said Phil Pacsi, vice president for marketing at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. "After the Super Bowl last year, we began to re-evaluate our relationship with the NFL."
When the sponsorship began, with the 2008 Super Bowl, Bridgestone's "original goal was to increase brand awareness," Pacsi said.
"What better venue than the biggest day of the entire (NFL) season," he said. "We had ads within the Super Bowl game, and we sponsored the halftime show."
But by summer 2012, the company felt it had done what it had set out to do and was ready to change its strategy, he said.
"We had a great run with that and achieved our goals of getting Bridgestone recognized."
And while Bridgestone will have a fan booth at the stadium in New Orleans, there will be absolutely no mention of the tire company on TV during the game.
Instead, Bridgestone used its NFL budget to sponsor "performance moment" features during regular-season NFL games, spreading its money throughout the season rather than spending most of it on one big event, Pasci said.
Marketing experts had mixed reactions to Bridgestone's shift.
"I believe it's a good move for them to go from ad placement to brand engagement, and to spread their marketing dollars out through the entire NFL season," said Jeffrey Buntin Jr., president and CEO of The Buntin Group in Nashville.
"The reasons for Bridgestone and GM stepping back from the Super Bowl are very different," he said. "In GM's case, it's sensitivity to the financials and the optics on spending that amount of money for one event, considering where they are right now.
"But for Bridgestone, it's a strategic marketing decision. Their brand has matured to where they can do this, and it's probably the right next move for them in building their brand. I don't think it reflects poorly on the Super Bowl - it's still a showpiece venue for advertisers, but it's not necessarily the showplace for brand development."
But another expert isn't so sure.
"Is the Super Bowl worth it? I would say absolutely yes," said Jack Westerholt, vice president and executive creative director at Nashville's Bohan Advertising. "Where else can you get that many eyeballs from a single event? It's really a rare moment where people all come together and you have a captive audience. I wish I had better insight as to why Bridgestone isn't doing it."
Westerholt has a close personal connection with Bridgestone and the Super Bowl. As a creative director at The Richards Group agency in Dallas, he came up with the "Mr. Potato Head" ad for Bridgestone that was judged the fourth-best commercial during the 2009 Super Bowl telecast.
"When we were advertising for Bridgestone on the Super Bowl, they couldn't manufacture enough tires to keep up with demand," Westerholt said. "I have done a lot of advertising that most people will never see because it doesn't have the reach the Super Bowl has. I can't think of another event where people want to tune in just to watch the commercials. The value of it is more relevant today than ever."
Volkswagen began advertising in the Super Bowl last year to help introduce its new Chattanooga-built Passat, and this year it will concentrate more on brand recognition than on a particular vehicle, said Kevin Mayer, vice president for marketing at Volkswagen Group of America.
The German automaker, whose name was a household word in America when the iconic Beetle was in its heyday, has a goal of selling more than 800,000 vehicles a year in the United States by 2018, up from 2012's 473,000 - which itself was an increase of 35 percent from the year before.
To achieve its sales target, Volkswagen needs to re-engage with the American public, Mayer said, adding that the Super Bowl "is the perfect venue for that."
"This is a platform you can't get any other time of the year, with 100 million people watching a single ad," he said. "Our research shows that 52 percent of the people at a Super Bowl party are there to watch the ads and be entertained by them."
There is considerable buzz about the ads well before and long after the game, too, he said, which adds to the value.
VW will air one 60-second ad during the game, but it hasn't been finalized yet, Mayer said. Audi will have a 60-second spot, as well.
"To grow at the rate we have been, a lot of things have to go right for us: product strategy, sales, marketing," he said. "This is just a part. We have 40 years of great marketing heritage, and we have to continue to hold high standards for our marketing strategy."
The Super Bowl is a good platform for VW, considering its big push to regain U.S. market share, Buntin said.
"Volkswagen is trying to reinstate its broad cultural appreciation and sense of ownership, the emotional attachment American consumers have had with VW on again and off again over the years," he said.
'We will re-evaluate'
Besides Bridgestone and GM, Franklin-based Nissan North America also will be on the sidelines of this year's Super Bowl. The company was a sponsor of the big game in the 1990s, but it hasn't been involved since.
"We believe the NFL and Super Bowl are both great media platforms, and Nissan has had a media presence throughout the 2012 NFL season by advertising products like the all-new Nissan Pathfinder," Nissan spokesman Josh Clifton said.
"The past few years, we've seen more automotive manufacturers utilizing the Super Bowl platform - eight brands last year alone - which makes it much harder to break through with everyone jockeying for media time during this big event. We evaluate advertising opportunities like the Super Bowl every year based on our communications objectives, and while we are not participating in the big game this year, we will re-evaluate for next season."
Like Nissan, GM says it can maximize its marketing efforts by spending its ad budget over a longer period and concentrating on specific models when they are launched.
"The cost of the Super Bowl spots has increased quite a bit, which was one of the factors," said Pat Morrissey, GM communications director for brands and advertising. "With the number of vehicle launches we have in 2013, we needed to look at spreading our resources throughout the year. We have 13 new Chevy vehicles alone coming out in 2013."
Skipping the Super Bowl makes sense for Nissan, too, Buntin said.
"Nissan is thinking about its product lines and who they are intended for, using a more targeted approach than what the Super Bowl lends itself to," he said. "The Super Bowl is a blended sort of moment."