Automotive TV Spending Down 21% In 2020

As was the case for all industries, automaker TV ad spending was affected by the various curveballs of 2020, resulting in almost a 21% drop year-over-year.

Estimated TV ad spend came in at $3.84 billion -- a 20.7% decline compared to last year’s $4.84 billion, according to, which looked at data through Dec. 6.  TV ad impressions, lagging at 331.4 billion compared to almost 404 billion, were down 18.1%.

Toyota spent the most on TV advertising and subsequently garnered the most impressions. 

The top five brands by spend in 2020 are: Toyota ($388.2 million), Ford ($282.1 million), Hyundai ($275.4 million), Subaru ($270.7 million) and Nissan ($264.3 million).

The top five brands by impressions in 2020 are:  Toyota (32.2 billion), Chevrolet (27.9 billion), Ford (27.6 billion), Hyundai (24.1 billion) and Lexus (23.2 billion).

While the end of the year saw industrywide spend and impressions levels normalize compared to 2019, the middle of 2020 still served as a transition period with much of the country under quarantine. Automakers needed new creative to reflect the times and limitations on in-person vehicle sales, which also took time to develop and deploy.

Auto brands leaned on sports once again, with 44.4% of spend (25% of impressions) coming from sports-related TV programming. In 2019, those numbers were too far off for sports -- 45.1% of spend, 33.6% of impressions -- the bigger difference was the raw totals. Across all auto brands, spend was down 22% during sports programming and impressions declined 38.3% compared to last year.

In 2020, the top shows by impressions still fell in line with what’s typical for automakers. The top five shows by impressions were all sports, as were the top seven by spend. The ranked list by spend: NFL football ($628.5 million), college football ($187.7 million), NBA basketball ($159.8 millon), NHL hockey ($89.2 million), MLB baseball ($87.1 million), Super Bowl LIV ($79.4 million), college basketball ($51.6 million).

The top five networks by spend made up about 50% of the total for auto brands. NBC led the way with $532.3 million, followed by FOX ($519.4 million), CBS ($411.6 million), ABC ($292.3 million) and ESPN ($257.7 million). Not coincidentally, all of those networks are major broadcast partners for the NFL, college football and/or NBA.

Though the industry totals were down, there were some brands that managed to increase spend year over year. Three auto brands -- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors and Maserati -- advertised on linear TV in 2020 after not doing so in 2019 (through Dec. 6). 

Additionally, despite the pandemic or maybe because of how it affected consumer TV consumption, eight automakers actually increased spend for the year: Porsche (up 160%), Land Rover (up 29.88%), Ram Trucks (up 21.16%), Genesis (up 19.02%), Lincoln Motor Company (up 15.10%), Nissan (up 13.48%), Hyundai (up 5.48%) and BMW (up 1.88%).

Once March began and it was clear that this wouldn’t be a typical year on TV,  auto brands changed advertising from “we’re here for you” messaging focused on community, to virtual sales, reopen/business-as-usual messaging, and then finally, holiday sales events to close the year. 

The 10 most-seen auto spots in 2020 (ranked by impressions) were Nissan's “Refuse to Compromise” (4.23 billion), Chevrolet's “Find New Roads, Again” (3.09 billion), Lincoln's “Warm Escape” (3.05 billion), Chevrolet's “Middle of Nowhere” (2.60 billion), Hyundai's “Buddy” (2.19 billion), Chevrolet's “Just Better” (2.17 billion), Mazda's “Manifest Destiny” (1.94 billion), Fiat Chrysler's “Drive Forward” (1.85 billion), Kia's “Shortcut” (1.84 billion) and Lexus' “Fearless Leader” (1.83 billion).

Automakers were tested in 2020, but despite constant programming shifts and changing limitations for on-premise vehicle sales,  brands still showed themselves adaptable on TV, said Stu Schwartzapfel, senior vice president, media partnerships at 

“Repeatedly altering creative to reflect both national and local guidelines, auto brands still found themselves embracing typical holiday sales messaging by year’s end to move remaining inventory, and prepare for what should be a more ‘normal’ 2021,” Schwartzapfel tells DriveTime.
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