Richard’s fine introduction on this topic began with two quotes, both holding a high degree of truth to advertising in general, yet both I’d suggest are not always relevant to that branch of advertising that deals with cars.
Edwin Land, who brought us Polaroid, as well as other products of intelligent research, said “Marketing is what you do when your product is no good” but, although Edwin Land was a remarkable inventor, it was easy for him to say that since, for years, his instant film system was the best in a group of one. Car manufacturers don’t have that luxury – if only Karl Benz had employed patent lawyers as good as Land’s we’d all be peering through that silver star on the bonnet. Also the problem is that, essentially, all cars are good these days – it’s a fair time since VW could point to a Korean upstart and state, quantitatively and overtly, that it didn’t make the grade. So you can’t just sell on actual superiority.
Author David Foster Wallace said that: “(an ad) did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” This is perceptive for a great deal of advertising but, actually, most car ads don’t work on anxiety. Maybe Volvo’s safety-based ones did but, generally, car advertisements are aimed at a willing clientele who want to be persuaded to buy a nice shiny car. This is a very different deal from selling drain freshener. Anxiety is involved at some stage, but probably not the type Wallace meant – just anxiety that your car will be sneered at by Jeremy Clarkson and the guy up the road with an M Series BMW.
On one level, it was easy for Helmut Krone and DDB to create their famous Beetle ads for the USA. The ads themselves were clever, elegant and fresh, but the message behind them was already there. The Beetle was undoubtedly different and only those people who hadn’t bought into Harley Earl’s befinned dreamworld and wanted something different would ever buy it. The ads probably didn’t change their minds about the Beetle, but it made it a respectable, even intelligent, thing to be seen buying. You now seemed smart to your neighbours, rather than kookie (back then taking yourself seriously wasn’t so bad). Again this was an ad that helped people to be persuaded to do something they actually wanted to do all along. The fact that the ad at the head of this piece actually highlights the shortcomings of the Beetle’s swing axles is an irony, though I think at the time it was not done cynically.
But that confirms that, of necessity, a lot of car advertising is done by people who don’t know much about cars and aimed towards people who don’t know much about cars. That’s not surprising, none of them probably knows the intricacies of processing baked beans on an industrial scale or of laminating 3-ply toilet paper by the kilometre. So they have to pick up on other things we might understand.
Incidentally, let’s not confuse Marketing and Advertising. Marketing is, to varying degrees, anticipatory. Often it identifies a need or a market before the actual product exists. As such, it can be used, for good or bad, to affect the final design of that product, and the quality of the product can depend on the quality of those doing the marketing. Marketing can take place after the event, when another niche of customers is identified and the product aimed at them, possibly with some modification. Advertising though is usually entirely passive in this respect, since it is given a product and told to make the very best of it, with or without respect to the reality. But the product itself just sits, silent and unchanging, whatever hyperbole is thrown at it.
Normally I don’t read a lot of advertisements. I also don’t read an awful lot of car magazines any more. So I bought a copy of Top Gear magazine the other day and was surprised how low key many of the adverts were, both aesthetically and in term of content – Ford Kuga … technology… hands free tailgate, New Peugeot … Still Affordable, Mazda 3 …. big engine performance small engine economy. But Top Gear is, to use the term loosely, an ‘enthusiast’s publication’. By that I mean that, despite the frequent pub soundbite journalism, advertising cars there is preaching to the converted.
But, when the facts just aren’t enough is when the advertisers can have their fun. They’re not called ‘creatives’ for nothing. Let’s start with Toyota’s recent campaign for the Aygo. Saatchi and Saatchi describe their own campaign for the car :
“Toyota’s ‘Go Fun Yourself’ campaign for the new generation Aygo, teams up with online pranksters, comedians, improv actors and YouTube stars to co-create a platform of fun.
Comprising a series of prankster style videos and social media from each market aimed to reach out to a younger audience, the campaign intends to emphasise Aygo’s image as the playful, dynamic car of choice suited to those that don’t take themselves seriously.”
The first UK TV airing of this campaign involved “Rahat – Internet Prankster” disguising himself as a car seat to make a ‘driverless car’. The reaction of toll booth operators, doormen, drive-in staff are then filmed as they stand gawping at the ‘empty’ Aygo that has just rolled up in front of them. Is this funny? Is this real? Does that matter? My take is that ‘pranks’ that prick the powerful and pompous are fine, and often brave. ‘Pranks’ that rely on the reaction of people in lowly paid and mundane jobs, who have been trained to be polite and meek under pressure are not funny, not clever, not edgy and, most certainly, not brave.
I suppose I’m attacking Rahat here, a man who I have no knowledge of and who is doubtless decent, caring and generous in all things and who, also, needs to earn a living. I’m also doubtless pompous and ‘no fun at all’ in not just having a good old laugh at his ‘prank’, even if I did see it on Candid Camera decades ago and even if I can’t see the word ‘prank’ without thinking of its rhyming rival in giving solo satisfaction to individuals who can’t get their fun elsewhere.
But Saatchi’s campaign does much to encapsulate the dull stereotyping that advertisers use. Even more so, in today’s media savvy times, when we all like to think we are on top of it all, and can deconstruct a campaign and treat it with the irony it deserves, we are happy to collude with Toyota in pretending that we are as ‘playful and dynamic’ as their car is and ‘don’t take ourselves seriously’. We live in an age, and I live in a country, where admitting to taking yourself seriously is almost a guarantee of pariah status. But at heart we do take ourselves seriously. We think that, instead of buying a 25 year old Ford Escort for £150, sawing the top off and covering it with dried banana skins, we should instead blow maybe more than £11,000 on an industrial product that was planned, engineered, designed, manufactured and marketed by a group of people who take themselves very seriously indeed and which will depreciate massively from the moment you get in the seat, or become the seat in Rahat’s case. If we believe otherwise we look as stupid as those people in his video.
Currently I see billboards with people doing ‘naughty’ things, the sort of things that would get them sectioned in the real world but, in adworld, things that suggest they are anarchic and fun, free free spirits. Anyway, they have an excuse because ‘The Ka Made Me Do It’. The Ford Ka, incidentally, is a dumpy small car based on a platform shared with Fiat which inherited its name from a vehicle that was far more stylish. It is relatively cheap, easy to drive, reliable and quite comfortable. It’s OK, it’s not special and it is in no way zany or funky. But don’t worry, if the people who buy it live next door, they won’t really paint their houses Magenta it’s just a fun fantasy for people who are, secretly, rather dull and serious.
Of all these attempts to make the mundane look special, possibly the most cringe-inducing campaign of recent memory was Peugeot’s ‘DriveSexy’ by Euro RSCG. This was really only the culmination of the once super-dignified PSA’s attempt to Get Down With The Kids, see exploding fields (405) and Thelma & Louise fantasies (106) but whereas they were inappropriate in the way the sight of Berlusconi on the beach was in his pomp, shorn of big budgets Drivesexy was just an old man with a full body wax strutting Cleethorpes promenade in a monokini. Am I being ageist? Well I‘m old enough to be permitted.
Another classic of the shameless adman, which must have had Leyland’s engineers wetting themselves with a mixture of gratitude and embarrassment, was the TV launch of the Ital, the Marina facelifted with (not a great deal of) help from Giugiaro. Who would take the Merak when there’s a Morris in the garage? You do not need to be a diehard enthusiast to recognise a very ordinary car. And there is nothing wrong with an ordinary car if you want it to do an ordinary job. but is there a compromise between the ludicrously unbelievable if occasionally entertaining, braggadocio of some ads and the mundane list of things that even nerds don’t care about found in the pages of Top Gear?
Volkswagen have been treading that path successfully in the decades since The Beetle. Their current Golf adverts haughtily but laughingly dismissing those who look around for a bargain, that always turns out the very opposite. As I said near the start, the actual chasm of quality of VW’s from the competition, which is taken for granted in the ads, is contentious, but the ad plays entertainingly on their reputation without actually mentioning it. And no-one ever laughed at you for buying a Golf..
Back when Kia were outsiders, still trying to make their mark with a rather ordinary car, their TV adverts played on a single, simple strength, the ability to get out of the back of a very small car with dignity providing it was one of the very few with four doors, like the Kia Picanto. This was clever, and a company like Kia generally makes sure it pitches its advertising well and doesn’t try to pretend its products are something else, in strong contrast to Vauxhall / Opel whose manic and desperate ads might entertain, but convince no-one.
H L Mencken’s old canard that “ ….no-one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”, witty though it is, stands in danger of being accepted as indisputable fact, particularly by a lot of people in the advertising industry. Some of the YouTube comments accompanying the videos above might put you in favour of Mencken, but who pays credence to the sort of people who write on the web? The visual sophistication of many contemporary ads give them a cinematic quality that often hides the complete idiocy of the underlying message – on first viewing. But repetition, at least in my case and I hardly flatter myself that I’m unique, dilutes the visual seduction and causes the message to grate.
The only things a good advertisement can do is to inform or or to entertain. I think the (we) ‘plain people’ often do notice when it does neither of these things and, even if we can’t analyse quite why, we vote with our feet. In my case by kicking the TV.