Lens Flare, Concrete and CAD Data

We return again to contemporary car advertising. What’s with these oil-painting-a-like hyper-real images of impossible perfection?

“Take the car to the Mulvaney Hills and take some photos, Jim.” http://www.classiccarstodayonline.com

Well, they are not so nice as the advert shown above. How about this:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lens flare? Check. Depopulated background? Check. CAD data instead of a real car? Check. Deep contrasts, dark shadows? Check. We are good to go. All clichées are on board.

These images gently hint at the tension between the image of the car as a means to gain freedom and the suburbia cars helped necessitate, don’t they? The two go together like bacon and a lot of eggs but we never actually see the car in suburbia in ads – unless it’s for irony’s sake. Suburbia is the enemy of the car’s cool image: all those traffic lights, speed limits, other makers’ cars, and children playing.

Instead the preferred style for many ads is to have the vehicle placed in a huge and obstacle-free environment. If there is a city it is in the background, safely distant:


If the car is placed in the city, it is usually miraculously free of traffic. Did you know that after 7.20 on weeknights Manhattan has next to no vehicular traffic?

One simply doesn’t believe in these images. Fitz and Van’s painted adverts from the 60s were as artificial as these publicity shots and yet they work well because one can project onto them. The CAD-style images shown here leave no space at all for the imagination since every variable has been resolved and the car is in a placeless place. The matter leads on to ask about why a real photo of a real car in a real place (every variable resolved by nature) can allow space for the imagination while these images do not.

The Photoshop masters are every bit as aware of rendering nature as any 19th century oil painter. It’s not a lack of skill but a lack of humanity, quirkiness, vaguess, ambiguity which renders these images sterile. The real photo of the real car suggests that you can go there, to the place, and see that same thing or something quite like it. That’s why you can project dreams onto a photo.

There are some valid reasons – to do with security – that mean it is very hard to take the 2016 Maxda RX-whatever out to a nice patch of the Caledonian mountains for half a day of photography. Cameras are everywhere and people are everywhere in the way they weren’t back in 1975. The launch might be six months away and nobody in management wants the news spoiled by a spy shot in Autobild or Autocar.

The necessity of avoiding places with people is that the images are sending out a very cold signal about these machines. Among the reasons I like my car is its relation to my life: family, friends, activities and its place in society. These cars above have no friends and never do anything except sit, alone, in dead places. The driver is not visible, there are no passengers. The cars will drive around and what then? Who wants to be in the places represented by these images. If you drove there you would drive away again.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

15 thoughts on “Lens Flare, Concrete and CAD Data”

  1. In the UK at least, motor advertising is subject to a raft of legislation. From my own first hand experience, I have witnessed the deadening effect that this can have on the creative process. I once drafted up a set of adverts for an established range of performance cars. In attempt to put a new spin on old tropes, the full page adverts featured no imagery of cars, instead depicting bucolic scenes moving at a blur. We conducted test shots on the road to achieve the desired effect in camera. The results were presented as full pages or spreads with no byline, just a logo. The idea was shot down by the client, not because they hated the idea, but because they thought that merely associating the brand with a blur would be enough to attract censure. They did not even check it with Legal. A number of other spins were shot down for the same reasons: no speed, no happy looking people, no implied excitement. In the end, to meet the deadline we ran studio shots of the cars with no people isolated on coloured backgrounds with tricksy bylines, just like everyone else does.

    By contrast, the rail industry loves motion blur. Quite often I am asked to isolate rolling stock from its static background, often in some godforsaken siding in Doncaster, and overlay it upon a moving background.

    For those that are interested, the rules for non-broadcast advertising are here:

  2. Incidentally, the advertising codes do not apply to editorial content, thus explaining why car magazines continue to exist: they are one of the few places where vehicles can be depicted at speed and with people having fun.

  3. Can´t you show a car on a lawn with some people nearby, as you might see in real life? I find it hard to believe its legal to sell a car but not legal to show people near one in an advert. Methinks the lawyers are being too cautious.

    1. It is not so much the lawyers as the conservative mindset the rules have fostered in the mind of advertising commissioners. I gather that the rules have been somewhat over-zealously enforced, leading to a play it safe attitude.

  4. Over the years I collected a large number of ‘official’ digital car pictures and real brochures. If also strikes me that some manufacturers have completely switched from high quality photography to the kind of ‘to perfect to be real’ renderings. I can only cry when seeing a recent Mercedes-Benz or Porsche brochure, because I remember the ones I collected 10 years ago had beautiful real photography.

    Both brands have now switched to the overkill type of fakeness. The real shame is the fact that the guy who is doing the job is the same photography studio they also worked with 10-20 years ago! A making of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C41sUWLTNXQ

    1. I have lots of brochures from the 70s. They are very evocative and, as far as I can tell, not complex set ups. They probably involved a lot of talent.
      Hasn’t Mercedes cultivated an oil painting style? It ought to enhance the cars but doesn’t. A white studio and a Hasselblad would be vastly better than their moody, artificial images.

    2. Agreed, and the comments around this article have provided excellent food for thought about the advertising and promotion of cars.

  5. Advertising ace Bill Bernbach said that “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” His adverts for VW took facts about the Beetle and turned them into virtues. Virtual images are artificial constructs passed off as photography. To say that people are not aware of these “untruths” even at a subliminal level is to do them a disservice. If something cannot be captured by a camera, then it cannot be captured by the eye, and people like to believe what they can see. Thus a couple of tons of metal, glass, plastic and rubber is robbed of both tangibility and credibility. After all, if the photo is not real, then what other lies might the manufacturer be trying to slip past you?

    1. Reminds me of a failed advertisement pitch in Mad Men:

      “Does that make you think of suicide?”
      “Of course. That’s what’s so great about it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: