In Its Super Bowl Ad, Maserati Steers for the Masses

In the Saharan Desert, a Ghibli is a hot, unexpected wind. (It’s an Arabic word.) Everywhere else, it’s a hot Italian sedan that just ruffled the car world with a Super Bowl ad that no one saw coming.

While its competitors teased out clever and comical fare on YouTube for weeks before the game, Maserati—in the Fiat family since 1993—kept mum until its ad aired in the first quarter. Indeed, most viewers probably didn’t know it was a Maserati commercial until the 1:30 spot was almost over.

Most of the segment rested on actress Quvenzhané Wallis, best known as the little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Her voice-over was a raspy whisper.

“The world is full of giants. … We had to learn how to deal with them, how to overcome them. … We wait until they get sleepy … then we walk out of the shadows—quietly walk out of the dark—and strike.”

Translation: “You don’t want a BMW or a Jaguar; they’re lumbering and dopey.”

In truth, the car world should not have been shocked by the ad, which, based on estimated Super Bowl ad rates, likely cost somewhere around $12 million. Maseratis and Ferraris, Fiat’s other primo car brand, have been zipping out of dealerships lately. Drivers bought almost 19,000 of the purring pleasure machines last year, a 36 percent increase over the year-earlier period, according to Fiat.

Fiat hopes to boost Maserati sales to 50,000 by 2015. The Ghibli, which started selling in September at a relatively affordable $65,600, is the linchpin of that plan. Not only is it lacking that crippling sixth figure on the window sticker, but critics really like it. Car and Driver magazine called it “a refreshing break from the highly competent but tightly laced German mind-set.”

Maserati’s larger Quattroporte sedan steers for the high end with a price tag that can be more than double. Meanwhile, the company also has an SUV in the works dubbed Levante.

So how does a burgeoning luxury brand get traction against the sector’s über-incumbents? By casting itself as different—a little more scarce, a little more original. That’s how Audi went after Mercedes buyers. And it’s the message that underpins the entire Cadillac brand at the moment. None of this was lost on the marketing engineers at Maserati.