On Feb. 3, the Harbaugh family's football teams will duke it out on national TV and millions will watch.
They also will see a solid dose of automotive advertising during the broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII from New Orleans.
Few industries invest as much in marketing as the one that sells cars and trucks. A Forrester Research estimate indicated $22 billion was spent on automotive advertising last year.
But as the car sales that stalled during the Great Recession start to get back on track -- and ad budgets grow -- the style as well as the placement of automotive marketing is almost certainly being analyzed as closely as the design of Chevrolet's 2014 Corvette Stingray.
Auto industry players Audi, Cars.com, Chrysler, Hyundai, Kia, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Volkswagen all plan to show commercials during the National Football League's championship game, according to the running tally being kept by trade publication AdAge.
The Super Bowl offers an opportunity to raise awareness of a brand and at least get consumers to consider it the next time they go shopping, said Bob Gilbert, a clinical associate professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business. So many people watch the game that even at an estimated $3.75 million per 30 seconds, a Super Bowl commercial can be an efficient marketing choice.
"I don't know that a Super Bowl ad really drives purchase consideration," he said, noting the spots are more designed to create brand awareness.
Then again, sometimes automakers offer surprises during their airtime.
Two past Super Bowl ads were among the top 10 automobile commercials of the past 25 years, based on a contest organized by marketing industry nonprofit The One Club. The winners were revealed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which ends today.
Third place went to a spot for the 2012 Volkswagen Passat that featured a child dressed in a Darth Vader costume being startled when his hidden parents turn the car on remotely. The contest organizers said the ad was replayed 55 million times online.
In sixth place was the 2011 Chrysler 200 spot that bluntly presented Detroit as a "town that's been to hell and back" and is capable of great things. "It's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel," said the spot featuring hip-hop singer Eminem. The tag line telegraphed that American products can be cool: "Imported from Detroit."
The auto industry's own not-so-hot times may be serving a catalyst in changing how the industry presents itself in the future. On the one hand, car shoppers are changing how they shop -- embracing digital tools to research their purchases, for example. On the other, there are indications that new generations of Americans might not need -- or want -- as many cars per household as in the past.
"[Automakers] don't quite know yet how to connect with Gen Y," Mr. Gilbert said. "It's a different type of an animal. Gen Y is really not quite as much into cars as we were."
Multiple experiments are under way using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, as a means of engaging consumer. Toyota announced a few weeks ago that it would offer the public a chance to have their image appear in this year's Super Bowl spot by submitting photos to Instagram or Twitter.
As marketers reset their budget priorities, Mr. Gilbert said he doesn't see TV advertising going away but another traditional medium -- print -- could see its share continue to ebb.
AutoTrader.com, for one, is counting on more money moving to the Internet. The Atlanta company, in regulatory filings preparing for an initial public offering of stock, cited Forrester data showing that online spending had grown from 5 percent of automotive advertisers' budgets in 2008 to 15 percent in 2011. The AutoTrader.com filing concedes that the company hasn't figured out yet how to make money off consumers using smartphones and tablets to pull up its materials.
For the automakers, the bottom line is to sell cars profitably. More than just marketing decisions are in flux. The companies have to hone their product lines to appeal to the luxury customers, the young professionals, the small business people and even the U.S. government's mileage standards.
Whatever ads end up playing during the Super Bowl, the goal is to get through to those audiences.
Even if this year's spots don't win awards, they'll be considered successful -- by their sponsors -- if they produce some sort of positive response and get the brand onto drivers' consideration lists.
At the Detroit auto show, automotive research firm Polk reported owner brand loyalty rose 1 percentage point last year to 48.04 percent. The company rates loyalty "based on when a household that owns a new vehicle returns to market and purchases or leases another new vehicle of the same model or make."
That's nearly half the vehicle buyers sticking with the brand they know, so getting them to consider alternatives is not an easy task.
Those ad professionals voting in the recent One Club contest might not have been judging sales results, but they did appear to have a good sense of what might keep people from skipping the ads for a bathroom break.
The top two winners in the contest were U.K. commercials, both done for Honda. One called "COG" from 2003 turned the pieces of an Accord into a sort of Rube Goldberg machine that works perfectly. Another, called "GRRR," used a colorful animated world and a song by Garrison Keillor to tout a clean diesel engine.
All of the winners seemed to offer a twist on a medium that can succumb to cliches of sleek vehicles with buttery leather seats nimbly moving across beautiful, empty landscapes.
A few of the commercials barely even showed cars at all, including a 2002 spot for Saturn that featured people standing on streets, getting speeding tickets, picking up children as if everyone were in invisible cars. The tag line: "When we design our cars, we don't see sheet metal. We see the people who may one day drive them."
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018. First Published January 27, 2013 5:00 AM