Express Yourself!

Just as the choice of car tells a lot about its owner, car advertising can say a great deal about its subject’s sensitivities.


Here we have the BMW 3 series, hitherto known as the Dreier or 3er in its home market – before it was recently rechristened The 3, because nothing rolls off the German tongue with quite as much aplomb as a ‘TH’.

Like the car’s overstyled appearance, this tv spot tries hard to impress. There’s not just a J-turn and some driving through what appears to be deserted LA, but smartphones and animated graphics feature heavily too – after all, driving isn’t really what cars are all about these days.

And then there’s the dancing. Probably a routine an advertising agency talent scout came across during last year’s edition of Burning Man. Part robo dance, part moonwalk, it’s clearly eye catching and memorable. How it relates to ‘The 3’ is another question?

And then there’s the Volvo V60. A spectacular car in the sense that it does without any of ‘The 3’s’ aesthetic shoutiness and about 80% fewer creases on its sheetmetal.

Similarly, the Volvo’s advert not only features a noted absence of freakish dancing or smartphones, but stylised-yet-relatable real life situations. Obviously, the people featured are among the better looking specimens of humanity and not many estate car owners would actually choose to sleep in their car. But still, the world shown in the Volvo advert is emotionally relatable, as is the idea of the car being either part of the family or a useful servant to it.

Even disregarding Volvo’s choice of featuring not just mixed race couples (just as BMW does), but also same sex ones, the Swedish brand’s muted, yet assured self-image appears far more in keeping with the times than BMW’s pseudo bravado. While BMW tries to impress, Volvo tries to accommodate. Where BMW’s message is muddled, Volvo’s is crystal clear.

Like design, advertising can be an astoundingly telling reflection of any company’s spirit. In one case, its about a brand whose humility doesn’t feel false. And in the other, about a brand that is utterly confused.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

14 thoughts on “Express Yourself!”

  1. Remarkable that the thing the 3er does best, dynamics, is not as important as self opening doors, voice activation and I suppose, distance radar . My take is that for an urban market, say in LA (or Shanghai?), these matter more than suspension and balance. Which is a tragic waste of achievement

    1. One does get the impression that one of these two brands knows exactly what it stands for and what its appeal is, whereas the other is somewhat lost, yet hellbent on coming across as being at the forefront of progress.

  2. I’m trying my hardest to ignore the latest 3 Series but, on the subject of car adverts featuring dancing, here’s my all time favourite:


  3. Christopher, I couldn’t agree more. I’d only the seen the new 1 advert till now which seems equally as gormless as for the 3. The Volvo advert is subtle, genteel and as you say has a modicum of reality about it all. Shouty versus grounded. The biggest conceit being the Allegro’s odometer: 78,308 miles – really? Shame on you, Daniel!

    1. Andrew, are you seriously implying that the very fine Allegro wouldn’t still be “vrommy enough for five” after a mere 78k miles? Such cynicism is most unworthy of you.

      Joking aside, Volvo’s recent advertising has been absolutely on the money in appealing to the company’s target audience. Here’s an example, where the definition of families is expanded, yet it is still subtle and avoids patronising clichés:

    2. Daniel, I believe this is the same advert I used in the article. And yes, the way homosexual couples are depicted is very assured. Unlike BMW, Volvo simply know where they stand and what they’re doing. Hence the confident design, advertising and brand positioning.

    3. Hi Christopher, for some reason my browser doesn’t show the ads you included in your piece above, but we clearly came to the came conclusions about the ad in question.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen the latest BMW offering yet, the new 2 Series Gran Coupé:

      Not good.

    4. Daniel, the 2 series GC … Compare to either the i30 Fastback, or new Mazda3 Saloon … either are quite preferable. BMW has become a maker of ugly cars.

  4. This is the first time I saw these commercials as I don’t own a TV (how’s that for elitism) and I haven’t seen either commercial on the internet. Neither appeals to me. BMW’s commercial is obviously silly, the Volvo commercial has an air of political correctness about it that I dislike.

    As for the cars: the BMW’s styling is a bit over the top, but the writer of this article is obviously exaggerating. I don’t think the Volvo has 80% creases… I never heard that argument about the over-creased Citroën XM over here either. As for the Volvo: a wrong wheel drive car that tries to look like a rear wheel drive car, how is that good design? And the rear light situation on the Swedish estate is simply revolting to my eyes. Volvo is doing a far better job on the XC40 and XC90 in that area. Also the V60 seems to be a little less practical than the V70. Yup Volvo knows what it’s about these days.

    1. It really shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Motor vehicles are either driven through their front wheels, their rears, or in some cases, all four. All are equally valid – ergo, correct methodologies.

      To suggest therefore that a motor vehicle is “wrong wheel drive” implies that something else is “right wheel drive”, which of course is palpable nonsense. And were it to be the case, which should it be?

      I would make the observation (which too ought to be abundantly clear to all) that this is not Sniff Petrol, or some other online repository of automotive cliché and received wisdom. So while I accept everyone’s right to an opinion, I feel it may become necessary to be proscriptive by issuing a ban on nonsense terms such as this.

      “Wrong wheel drive”, I ask you?

    2. I would very much doubt that a company such as Volvo would randomly extend the wheelbase merely to simulate a “rear wheel drive” stance. I assume that it is instead a logical consequence of the packaging of the engine and transmission. If this results in a more pleasing stance, then fine, there’s nothing “wrong” about it.

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