02/03/2011 10:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Super Bowl Sunday, the Auto Industry Beats the Spread

This Sunday, Super Bowl XLV will be played between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, in a matchup of two teams that have both overcome their fair share of adversity. The revitalization of these two teams after tackling various in-season obstacles is notable, but it won't be the only impressive comeback on display. The auto industry will showcase its own comeback story on Super Bowl Sunday, a reflection of the new state of the industry.

Consider the situation a couple of years ago. In the wake of federal bailouts, pessimism was high, consumer confidence was down, and in perhaps the most telling indicator of the industry's difficulty, car commercials -- always a staple during the Super Bowl broadcast -- were noticeably down.

Now, look at where we stand today. Buzz at last month's Detroit Auto Show was the highest it's been in recent memory. In the same month, new vehicle sales rose 17 percent. Consumer excitement is on the rise thanks to new technologies that are transforming the ways we think about cars. And of course, auto advertisers are flocking back to the Super Bowl, with eight different auto manufacturers purchasing time during this year's broadcast.

But just because there's a return of Super Bowl car ads, it doesn't mean that it's business as usual for the industry. Far from it. Auto manufacturers are innovating at a rapid pace, and just as notably, they're communicating new messages that resonate with the American public.

Why is that communication important? Cars have always been both influencers and reflections of American culture. For most of us, cars are a fundamental part of our lives, and for the better part of a century, they've been crucial in helping to define American values.

Beyond their utilitarian value, cars represent something much bigger. Earning a driver's license is a rite of passage that for millions of American teenagers is the unofficial gateway into adulthood. The great American road trip carries with it a sense of adventure and romance that continues to this day. And, historically speaking, cars brought a new sense of mobility that served as a catalyst for the suburban culture that is the basis for pop culture family icons from "The Brady Bunch" of the '70s to today's "Modern Family."

It's safe to say that in the wake of the last several years, during which the only constant has been change, Americans have been looking to redefine their values and moral compass. If you had to choose a symbol of the boom years prior to the economic downturn, it could very well be the image of a massive SUV parked in the driveway of a McMansion. Today, in a new era of fiscal responsibility, the difference couldn't be more stark. As we increasingly place importance on energy savings and carbon cutting, cars like the Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF have gone from being mere novelties to in-demand vehicles. And as we've begun to value connectivity and access to information above traditional material features, a new technology like the Ford SYNC attracts more excitement from the public than the introduction of a new leather-bound interior ever could.

Whereas the car used to be considered the consummate status symbol, helping project a certain external image, it's now more reflective of our inner beliefs and passions, a vital part of the conversation we have about ourselves as Americans. Auto brands have realized this and are connecting with the car-buying public in savvier, more personally relevant ways than ever before, empowering consumers to establish new conceptions of what a car can mean to them. They're showing up at events with passionate followings like CES and South by Southwest. They're wading into the lifestyle arena, partnering with fashion and consumer product brands. And they're personally interacting with the public through social media channels. The industry has recognized what's truly important to people, and connecting with them in ways that are now most relevant has become a priority. That continued emphasis is vital to the industry's ongoing resurgence.

As we all know, a car isn't just about getting you from Point A to Point B. At its best, it becomes a storytelling device that can help to both reveal and develop our passions and emotions. I know I'll be watching with great interest on Sunday night when so many auto brands write that new chapter in the narrative that is the relationship between people and their cars.

Sean Cassidy is the President of DKC Public Relations, Marketing & Government Affairs. DKC recently formed a joint venture with Forum Strategies & Communications to launch Accelerate™, a full-service public relations and experiential marketing group designed to handle the unique communications needs of the automotive industry.