I want to start out this week by adding my sincere congratulations to Jamie McMurray on his maiden win in the Daytona 500, becoming just the 34th driver to take the checkers in the biggest race on the NASCAR slate. It can’t have been an easy transition over the last year for the amiable Jamie Mac, who was cast aside by Roush Fenway Racing when the team contracted from five to four cars, per the NASCAR mandate. If he never wins another race for Chip Ganassi, his return will always be a success – such is the importance of winning the Great American Race, as evidenced, perhaps, by his copious victory lane tears.
Off the track, the start of the new season also means the start of a raft of ad campaigns, as old and new sponsors square up to make the most of their association with the grand old sport of stock car racing. As someone who came to the sport as a result of advertising, the new campaigns have always interested me – not just because I worked on so many myself – but also because I understand the difficulties, all too well, of creating a pithy, witty 30-second spot that resonates with the intended target audience.
It’s fair to say that 2009 was not a tremendous year for NASCAR TV advertising. Companies trimmed and slashed ad budgets amidst the uncertainty of a tanking economy and great ads were few and far between. Certainly, when compared to 2008 there were precious few gems last year. Based on the evidence so far in 2010, we’re not quite back up to the same standard we were in 2008, but there are definitely promising signs. Let’s start with the good stuff and who did well….
I’ll begin with a big thumbs up for UPS, who debuted two new commercials in the 500. The first spot, “Accept the Challenge,” featured a string of well known “delivery” folks who were all left on the outside looking in at the UPS guy – replete in those very definitely not fashion forward brown shorts – delivering packages in the garage. The final few seconds with Santa Claus trying to scale the chainlink fence made a good spot just that little better. The second spot, part of the UPS Maximum Driver campaign, saw David Ragan riding a modified Tuk Tuk up, down, around and all over a racetrack. In short, great work from UPS, who also made the best NASCAR ad I’ve ever seen, a genius salute to retiring Dale Jarrett. Let’s hope the man who replaced the 1999 Cup champion, Ragan, can match the lofty off-track standards of his loyal sponsor on the track after a disappointing third full season in 2009.
A thumbs up, too, for beleaguered auto manufacturer Toyota, who has, to put it mildly, had a terrible start to the year. The two “Sponsafy” spots are fantastic and the idea behind the campaign (you can design a paint scheme and the winning entry will run at the All-Star Race) was even better. Trust me, I will be entering this competition. Any ad that can get Kyle Busch in a pink firesuit with kittens and have him talk about who doesn’t love baby seals gets my vote. The other version of the spot has Denny Hamlin in an equally ridiculous “love” firesuit. You can be sure Brad Keselowski had a good laugh when he first saw the spot. Another solid effort came from NAPA, who in my humble opinion makes the best commercials of any major NASCAR sponsor. With ubiquitous pitch-man Michael Waltrip not running full-time this season, Martin Truex Jr. has stepped into the role of chief salesman and on the evidence so far, it’s with great aplomb. More to come, I hope, from NAPA in 2010.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be a seven-time most popular driver, as voted by the fans, but Sunday’s race left little doubt as to who the marketers consider to be the most popular pitchman, with Carl Edwards popping up during just about every commercial break – often more than once. With that All-American charm and a smile to warm the hearts of dentists the length of the country, Edwards is a natural on-air pitchman, featured in ads during the 500 for Subway, Aflac, the Ford Fusion, NASCAR Home Tracks and alongside a number of other Sprint Cup drivers in the Gillette 500 ad – a well produced spot with amusing cameos from a number of the “Young Guns” including Clint Bowyer, Busch, Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano.
Speaking of the rookie phenom, I thought his new Home Depot ad was disappointing by their usually high standards. This from a company, don’t forget, that produced these two fantastic commercials, the first of which from late 2008 featured both Tony Stewart and Logano and the second in 2009 was a Joey only version once Tony’s transition to ownership at Stewart-Haas Racing was complete. And while I’m on the subject of disappointments, I didn’t think much of the Dale Junior Hellmann’s Ad – too generic – and the Lowe’s four-in-a-row ‘Congrats Jimmie’ ad was, to use the appropriate term, vanilla.
Two final spots to mention: First up, Budweiser , who came up with a creative alternative pit stop featuring Kahne flipping burgers, arm-wrestling and throwing a football – not to mention tattooing the Bud logo on a fan’s back. Creative, as always, from a company that has produced some side-splitting spots over the years, and it bears mentioning that it is good not to see Kasey prancing around in a pink firesuit pimping insurance with three borderline crazy fans. And last but not least, Sprint also weighed in with a new NASCAR specific version of their current main campaign featuring Jimmie Johnson. It was another solid effort from the title sponsor, and although I am biased since I worked on the campaign three years back now, it does seem appropriate to doff my cap to another Sprint spot starring 2010 Daytona 500 champion McMurray. The ad, appropriately, is called “Magic.”
So, while not a bumper crop of brilliant ads by any stretch of the imagination, there were plenty of decent efforts from most of the major sponsors, and I didn’t even mention the GoDaddy girl either. Making a creative, memorable NASCAR ad is not easy – as shown by those horribly stilted Junior Wrangler commercials that ran every 12 seconds on Speed Channel these last couple years – but it’s far from impossible. When companies get it right, they tend to really hit the mark and produce a fabulous spot. I’m not sure we had any truly fabulous spots in the Daytona 500, but we certainly had some very good ones. Something to build on, if you will, and that’s just what the sport needs right now.