GM Super Bowl Gambit May Not Have Any Gas

AdAge asks: Can GM global marketing chief Joel Ewanick triumph over longstanding TV-network safeguards?

GM has reached out to other Super Bowl advertisers about placing its cars in their Super Bowl spots, Mr. Ewanick recently confirmed to USA Today. Earlier rumors about the effort had suggested GM was offering a cool $500,000 for the unusual integration. The result could be a wild “Where’s Waldo”-esque promotion that would send consumers to their fast-forward and rewind buttons to find drive-bys in ads and get rewards like snacks or movies.

We suspect, however, that GM will have to slam the brakes on this idea before it gets very far.

Mr. Ewanick’s notion is fanciful, daring and creative. But putting it into practice would not only usurp the authority of NBC, which is broadcasting the Super Bowl, but also make it nearly impossible for GM rivals to get an effective word in edgewise.

For decades, the big three U.S. automakers have routinely safeguarded their TV commercials by making sure no domestic competitor appears in the same ad break. If CBS, NBC or USA runs a Ford ad, then an ad for, say, a Chevrolet or a Dodge could not follow in the same commercial “pod.” In many cases, the same holds true for vehicles produced by foreign automakers like Toyota or Hyundai.

With so many automakers ramping up investment in the Super Bowl over the last year, planning the flow of commercials for the event has become more challenging, as demonstrated by Fox’s last-minute moves in 2011 to accommodate Chrysler’s two-minute ad starring Eminem.

Having GM cars appear in other sponsors’ commercials would further complicate the situation. Imagine having to figure out where Chrysler might place an ad in the Super Bowl if GM has purchased several minutes of its own ad time and then sprinkled product appearances in something from, as a strictly hypothetical example, or even Anheuser-Busch. The assignment would be daunting.

More alarming, at least to any TV-network ad-sales executive, is the notion that sponsors can resell their Super Bowl ad time to others for fun and profit. Every few years, some hoaxster sallies forth bragging that they intend to buy up a 30-second ad berth during the Super Bowl and then resell the time in five- or 10-second increments to others. The alleged GM plan would call for something essentially pretty similar.

At NBC, no one is looking to change the longstanding policy against reselling spots. Integrating brands into unrelated Super Bowl ads would require explicit NBC approval, according to Seth Winter, senior VP-sales and marketing at NBC Sports Group, who declined to comment on any advertiser’s specific plans.

“If someone is going to submit creative that has another advertiser integrated into the commercial that we have not approved,” it will not air during the Super Bowl, Mr. Winter said. “We don’t allow for the ‘co-opting’ of advertising.”

Advertisers have tried to “game” the Super Bowl for years. In 2009, Mr. Winter threw cold water on an out-of-nowhere proposal from a relatively unknown ad agency that would have pooled eight advertisers during 30 seconds of Super Bowl ad time.

Heineken and Miller have tried to get around Anheuser’s exclusive beer sponsorship by snatching up local ad time on TV stations broadcasting the Super Bowl around the U.S., hoping that a message shown during local time would make the same pop-culture dent that rival Budweiser and Bud Light’s do each year.

Local-station ad workarounds, stunts and hide-the-car gambits are fun to hear about, but the millions of people tuning in to the event on the day of play aren’t looking for guerrilla marketing. They don’t want Lingerie Bowls, three-second ads or viral videos. They want the real thing: a good football game and well-crafted ads designed for a broad, national audience.

The idea being ascribed to General Motors sounds fascinating. Would Super Bowl viewers, many of them drinking steadily during the game, have the capacity to catch a flash of Chevrolet in an ad for some other marketer? But here’s a notion we think is even more worthy of study: The most effective advertising during the Super Bowl is actual Super Bowl advertising.