Ad Track: Pepsi hopes Earnhardt drives laps around A-B

NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. will go bumper-to-bumper with his former backer before the Feb. 17 Daytona 500 if he makes the starting grid in a Feb. 3 Super Bowl ad for the company sponsoring his new ride.

Earnhardt, a five-time Most Popular Driver Award winner whose 17 major victories include the 2004 Daytona 500, recently shot two ads for Pepsi's pep Amp energy drink, sponsor of his race car this year.

Pepsi is the No. 2 Super Bowl ad spender this year behind Anheuser-Busch bud, which was Earnhardt's sponsor last season. He moved to Pepsi and the Hendrick Motorsports racing team after a highly publicized split with his family's team and says he's eager to help Pepsi overtake marketing rival A-B as a Super Bowl ad favorite.

"There's only a few Super Bowl spots and it's limited on what celebrities get chosen; after a while, you start to understand the competition between the brands," Earnhardt said by phone from a commercial shoot in Los Angeles, where he said he and a crew of 30 took over a "nice woman's café."

"You start to see how big a deal it is not to bomb," he said. "It's important to be at the top of the list. When they go out and spend all this dang money, they don't want to bomb out."

Pepsi shot two ads with the NASCAR star and they're in a pool of ads in testing to see which will get a piece of its two minutes of in-game ad time. With that time valued at about $10 million and more than 90 million people expected to be watching, Pepsi is testing to see if they are game-ready. Either way, the Earnhardt ads will air in the telecast of the Daytona 500.

But Pepsi and Earnhardt hope his ads will help them to a Super Bowl victory lap in USA TODAY's 20th annual Ad Meter real-time rating of the ads on game day.

Pepsi marketers think Earnhardt's appeal can help the Amp ads top soft-drink rival Coca-Cola and end Anheuser-Busch's Super Bowl Ad Meter winning streak. A-B has taken the checkered flag for the most-liked ad for nine games. Before Anheuser-Busch began its Ad Meter run, Pepsi reigned as king of Big Game ads for six consecutive Super Sundays.

With the Earnhardt ads, Pepsi's formula has mixed in some of the traditional ingredients of crowd-pleasing Super Bowl ads: celebrity star power and animal antics. In one of the ads, Amp gives Earnhardt the energy to take on a camel (real), in the other a gorilla (human powered). The beasts are meant to represent the forces that drivers endure on a race track at 200 mph.

The bottom line, of course, for Amp marketers is not winning prizes, but raising awareness and sales for the now-No. 5 energy drink brand.

"Energy is a huge growth category," says Cie Nicholson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Pepsi North America. "We're excited about Dale Jr. He's one of the most popular athletes on the planet. There's so much focus on Junior right now. We think it's going to be a great year to take advantage of the excitement around Dale. Jr. and NASCAR in general."

To that end, Earnhardt's ads are just the start of the year-long marketing calendar for his new sponsor. He'll be in print and radio ads and on Amp cans this summer.

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