Q: Greg I remember your columns about car endorsements by celebrities and Super Bowl car ads. After watching the Super Bowl this year I see the car commercials are still very popular. I liked Will Ferrell’s commercials, but I think there were fewer car ads this year than in the past. What was your opinion of the car commercials and endorsements? Ben L., happily retired in Connecticut.
A: Ben you are correct that there were fewer car commercials at this year’s Super Bowl than in the past. I think the main reason was the cost, as it took $6.5 to $7-million per 30-second spot to show up on the Super Bowl TV screen. That’s correct; not a 1-minute spot, a 30-second spot.
This is a long way from celebrity rapper Eminem’s 3-minute long Motor City Chrysler ad, to the impressive voice over of actor Jeff Bridges for Hyundai message back in 2011. Pricing back then was nowhere near today’s prices as it took “just” $3-million per 30-second spot in 2011.
However, celebrity car endorsements are not new, especially to us baby boomers and older who grew up with the new medium. Before I get into modern-day television advertising, my initial awareness was the beloved Dinah Shore, who’s “See the USA in a Chevrolet” became an overnight sensation for car promotion back in the early Fifties. Her show was called the Chevy Show and it was perhaps the biggest hit of the decade.
When you look further into car endorsements, you’ll find some famous legends, from Snoop Dog’s Chrysler golfing commercial with Lee Iacocca to the most famous of all Chrysler pitchmen, Ricardo Montalban and his “Corinthian Leather” Chrysler Cordoba in 1975. Even Frank Sinatra appeared with Iacocca, pitching the new Imperial in 1981-1983.
Still, it was the decade of the Fifties when television found out just how powerful the medium was in selling cars, from “The Adventures Of Superman” relying on Nash and Nash-Healy automobiles for its stars to drive to the incomparable “You Bet Your Life,” where legendary Groucho Marx sold the Desoto and Plymouth brands on his weekly game / comedy show.
Today, it’s Jay Leno headlining the modern day “You Bet Your Life,” he’s a car advertisement himself based on his gigantic car collection. Unfortunately, Desoto and Plymouth brands have long since disappeared from Chrysler offerings, but Leno’s recent sponsors include Car Gurus, Allegiant Airlines, and Wyndham Hotels.
The car and truck celebrity endorsement list is a long one, with present and not too long ago celebrities like Sam Elliott (Dodge Ram), Kate Walsh (Cadillac), Justin Timberlake (Audi), Jill Wagner (Mercury), and even Bob Dylan (Cadillac) all taking part.
Out of the past, Celine Dion (Chrysler), Richard Thomas (Mercedes-Benz), and Howie Long (Ford) come quick to mind, as does Phil Mickelson (Ford), Jackie Stewart (race driver-Ford) and Tiger Woods (Buick and then last I remember Genesis).
At the state fairs and smaller speedways, Joie Chitwood not only worked television commercials for Chevrolet, he was under contract to use the new Chevrolets in his popular “Thrill Show,” where stunt drivers would entertain millions with perfect choreographic driving skills and death defying crashes. The branding, however, was 100-percent Chevrolet, although Chitwood did use Ford cars prior to his Chevy deal in the mid-Fifties.
Sometimes being in a car ad serves as a catapult for more celebrity status. Jon Reep was a fairly well-known stand up comedian and actor back in 2009, but nothing like the stardom he would welcome for being the “Hey, that thing got a Hemi” character.
As for beauty, Farrah Fawcett’s 1975 Mercury Cougar ads are still talked of to this day as are Dustin Hoffman for Volkswagen, Bruce Willis for Subaru, Matthew McConaughey for Lincoln, and Daniel Craig for Range Rover; and we’re still at the tip of the iceberg. (Yes, I remember Wilt Chamberlain for the VW Bug, too!)
Back to the 2023 Super Bowl, I quickly recall General Motors promoting electric Cadillac, GMC, and Chevrolet EVs while partner Netflix featured its shows, including “Stranger Things.” The ad ends with Will Ferrell turning into a zombie while riding with a zombie that bit him.
Others include Kia, Ram pickup and Jeep, but that’s about all I can recall with the exception of Fast X promo for the film with Vin Diesel in his wild Dodge Charger. Other film teasers included a Porsche, Lincoln, and even the Bat car, but they were not purchased by car companies.
Gone were Super Bowl regulars like Toyota and Fiat, and many other brands through the years. So you are correct Ben, way less car ads this year. Thanks for your letter.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes letters and input on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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