Josh Jacobs, right, stars in Super Bowl ad for new Kia Seltos.
Several years ago, Kia was the cute upstart auto brand that put sock puppets and animatronic hamsters in its Super Bowl advertising, to make people smile and promote cute new vehicles such as the boxy Soul crossover. But this year, now as a regular performer in Big Game advertising, Kia’s Super Bowl commercial is about a robust, mainstream new all-wheel-drive model called Seltos. And the ad’s mien can only be described as sober if hopeful.
So a lot has changed for Kia, and all for the better. Kia has become a heavy-hitting brand in the U.S. auto market with a complete product lineup. And it’s able to do the serious, altruistically oriented kind of Super Bowl advertising that brands typically turn to only after they’re long established and want to show how they give back.
After last year’s Super Bowl ad in which Kia showed its community-conscious side and declared its pride for building its new Telluride three-row SUV in Georgia, on Sunday its Big Game commercial will tackle homelessness while granting a subordinate role to Seltos.
“What I looked at was a different way of positioning Kia: as a grown-up brand,” Russell Wager, Kia’s U.S. marketing chief after landing the role last summer from the same job for Mazda USA, told me. “Its our 25th year in the United States. As opposed to just being known for great value, or for the Soul hamsters, the brand and its products are outstanding – not just Telluride, but the other ones too. We’ve started trying to become a bit more about telling the story of the Kia brand and what we stood for.”
The human star of Kia’s Super Bowl ad is Josh Jacobs, a talented rookie running back for the Oakland Raiders who starred at the University of Alabama but grew up homeless. The trailer released several days ago by the brand fantasized about a very young Josh Jacobs holding a press conference and talking about determination. The Super Bowl spot itself, titled “Tough Never Quits,” depicts Jacobs driving through his home state of Oklahoma in a Seltos and counseling a youngster who represents a pre-teen version of himself.
“This ad is the epitome of what we stand for,” Wager said, referring to Kia’s new slogan, “Give It Everything.” Jacobs’ story “inspired us. And there are four million other kids out there that are like him and homeless.” So Kia is making a big donation to three charities that battle childhood homelessness, based on a formula tied to how many yards the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs gain during the game.
The ad also represents a further investment by Kia in an American identity for the brand and for the Korea-based company that has grown gradually as it has succeeded in the U.S. market but that took a big step forward last year with Kia’s ad about its U.S. plant. The brand’s tacking toward American sensibilities also comes at a time that auto companies generally have been responsive to President Trump’s rhetoric about the importance of their making physical investments and creating jobs in the United States.
“We’re calling our messaging Americana — real, authentic messaging that we’ve done for the last six months plus in this Super Bowl spot,” Wager explained. “We filmed this ad in Oklahoma; you don’t get more Americana than that.”