Car advertising drives off the beaten path

It's been a long journey, but it appears the old, generic automobile advertising formula is finally starting to stall. Those tired images of vehicles gliding through slick city streets, trucking through rough terrain or speeding, then sliding to an abrupt stop on a secluded road, are yielding to more creative work that emphasizes brand personality.

It’s been a long journey, but it appears the old, generic automobile advertising formula is finally starting to stall. Those tired images of vehicles gliding through slick city streets, trucking through rough terrain or speeding, then sliding to an abrupt stop on a secluded road, are yielding to more creative work that emphasizes brand personality.

While essential details like price and safety still provide points of entry for consumers, in the last few years, most car manufacturers have come to the realization that a more inventive advertising approach is required to entice buyers, says Chris Travell, VP of Toronto-based Maritz Automotive Research Group. ‘There are ads where you only see the vehicle for five seconds – five years ago that wouldn’t have been considered,’ he says. ‘That very much reflects a change in the way that manufacturers are communicating with customers.’

Travell believes that a strategy that emphasizes brand character is sound in today’s high-traffic marketplace, in which 50% of shoppers already make up their minds about what vehicle they will purchase before hitting the showrooms. ‘I think auto manufacturers need to go beyond the practical reasons for a purchase … . There is an emotional aspect to a vehicle purchase, and they can tap into that reality.’

Take Taxi Advertising & Design’s work for BMW’s re-launched Mini as a prime example of this new breed of car advertising. The TV spot that debuted late last month in both 60-second and 30-second formats is a series of quick vignettes that all stem from the opening line, ‘Size is deceptive.’ The various entertainment-style scenarios include a small boxer beating a gigantic opponent, a man failing to crush an egg and David killing Goliath. Even the lyrics developed specifically for the ad – ‘This is for the little guy, for the original, for the small fry,’ follow the same theme.

According to Zak Mroueh, CD at Taxi, who produced the ad along with art director Lance Martin, seeing the Mini in the end is the payoff. ‘It’s called a Mini, but it packs a punch,’ he quips, adding that he expects the car, which is being pre-sold by BMW, to sell out before landing on lots. ‘We had to get across the personality of the brand and what we’re trying to do is create desire. Then we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of the car.’

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler’s philosophy is in reverse of BMW’s – it is moving away from the nitty-gritty practical details and embracing an umbrella brand message in its ‘This Is My Car’ campaign, which debuted last year from Toronto agency BBDO. ‘The strategy was to get out of talking about 0% financing, or the cheapest deal in town and to focus more on the craftsmanship, the ownership and design of the vehicles,’ explains Ron Smith, VP, marketing at the Windsor, Ont.-based company. ‘People like to talk value, but you can get past the pricing story pretty quick in people’s minds.’

One of the earlier spots stars Sebring designer Joe Dehner, who beats up on empty cardboard boxes. No matter what pretty names they have, he points out, ‘When you get right down to it, they’re still boxes.’ At the end, he introduces the sleek silver Sebring and brags, ‘This is my car.’

Another instalment for Chrysler’s PT Cruiser has a couple embracing after a date, while a voiceover, presumably the woman, recounts the perfect night. Then she points out that her boyfriend has a flaw: he keeps forgetting that ‘this is [her] car’ and so she grabs the keys from his pocket and runs to reclaim her vehicle.

While DaimlerChrysler has been hit hard by a depressed economy, Smith says that so far results of the campaign have been promising, and that, in December, the auto manufacturer witnessed a hike in car sales. In fact, the corporation is adding new spots to the mix this month that use the same tag line, although Smith wouldn’t elaborate.

Saturn will also break new TV ads mid-month that highlight its new SUV model. Eric LeBlanc, advertising and promotions manager for Oshawa-based Saturn Saab Isuzu, says the company is confident the campaign will turn heads, despite the fact that the category is jam-packed. ‘We are utilizing very different visuals, as well as computer-generated graphics to show the vehicle in a different form,’ he says.

The new commercials follow an earlier pair that ‘reflected true stories.’ Produced by Cossette Communication-Marketing, one depicts a young woman who loses her job and takes advantage of the manufacturer’s 30-day money-back guarantee; the other has a salesman picking up a client at the airport with her new car when she returns from living overseas.

Says LeBlanc: ‘I can’t share sales figures, but I can tell you that when it comes to overall opinion of the Saturn brand, as well as some of our brand attributes, some of our scores have improved because of those spots.’

Like Saturn, General Motors has adapted high-tech components in its advertising, as witnessed in its recent Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire creative. Produced by MacLaren McCann, the eight ads, in both 30- and 15-second formats, feature flash technology, and drive consumers to the Web sites, or While the Pontiac spots are edgier, the Cavalier ads star ‘tested-and-true’ characters, like James Bond, says Doug Turney, EVP and general manager at MacLaren McCann.

For example, in a Pontiac commercial, a giant woman runs down a city street in ‘Attack of the 50-foot woman’ style. Meanwhile, a Cavalier spot features ’70s TV cops Starsky and Hutch. ‘Car advertising is all the same,’ says Turney, who reports the campaign exceeded sales expectations. ‘We wanted to add some lustre and sizzle through the presentation, to let consumers know that GM is on the innovative forefront.’

GM has also become revolutionary in its media buys lately. At the end of last month, it unveiled a nine-month convergent advertising program with Bell Globemedia, aimed at accelerating the popularity of its Cadillac brand among younger men.

The deal includes three specially produced 30-minute television programs and an insert in the Globe and Mail, which will address the three pillars of the campaign – technology, design and business, according to Hugh Dow, president of M2 Universal, Toronto, which handled the media buying and planning. ‘We’re putting together a variety of communications channels that have themed content – and that’s what distinguishes this from conventional advertising,’ he says. ‘We were looking for something impactful and innovative to appeal to a younger target group, which is interested in new technology and design.’

Despite all the hyperbole, Frank Palmer, CEO of Vancouver-based Palmer Jarvis DDB, hasn’t seen many brilliant car ads. ‘Five per cent of car ads are good, the rest are stupid,’ he remarks. ‘The best ads are by Volkswagen – they’re simple stories but they are believable. And you get the feeling the ads are a piece of a person’s personality.’

Volkswagen of America, which in October reported double-digit growth and its best sales for that month in 27 years, has placed personality in the driver’s seat for a while now, according to J.J. Hochrein, account director at Toronto-based Vickers & Benson Arnold. (Much of the ad work comes from Arnold Communications in Boston.) For instance, when the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based firm re-launched the Beetle in 1998, the cheerful ads acted as a springboard for the VW brand. ‘It brought people back into the showrooms,’ says Hochrein.

Partly, the firm’s success stems from its ability to relay traditional themes with a humorous bent. For instance, a recent Passat installment has a car driving through the typical snowstorm. But the ad begins with a close-up on a man’s face, and it takes a few seconds before viewers find out he’s driving a beater and happens to be spinning in a parking lot. Meanwhile, a Passat drives by without difficulty.

In a more recent Beetle commercial, a man in a car sales lot calls his wife on his mobile to tell her they have to ‘have the silver one.’ When the sales guy comes out with a couple and approaches the vehicle in question, the protagonist licks the door handle. The tag is ‘Claim yours before someone else does.’ Says Hochrein: ‘There’s a sense of urgency there, but it’s done in a fun and entertaining way. I think the personality comes out in how we’re trying to relate to our drivers.’

Of course, there is a risk in having too much fun or, at least, appearing to in the eyes of the humorless consumer. Creative by Young & Rubicam Montreal for Ford Focus, featuring a woman who abducts a cute, male salesclerk by pushing him into the hatchback, was pulled in January after Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) ruled it condoned violence against men.

And Travell recalls how 10 years ago, the Acura Infinity performed poorly against the Lexus, after a TV ad effort failed to display the Infinity in any scene. ‘You were looking at the beauty of nature and humanity, and it had a Zen approach,’ he says. ‘That was too nebulous.’

Auto design becomes new marketing tool

As automakers seek to cater to individual target groups, product design has become an integral element of their marketing tactics.

There has been an epiphany among car manufacturers that product has to be at the absolute forefront of a company’s strategy, according to Chris Travell, VP of Toronto-based Maritz Automotive Research Group. ‘Certainly in the last five years, there has been an increase [in targeted product design], and it will continue, as manufacturers are interested in the lifestyles of consumers,’ he explains, adding that automakers should ‘lead with product and then add brand work to support that effort.’

Certainly there have been notable automobile concepts popping up of late that would appeal to a consumer’s emotions and/or needs. At the Detroit Auto Show, for instance, Ford unveiled its Mighty F-350 Tonka Concept, a bright yellow and chrome pickup. The company partnered with toy manufacturer Tonka, to combine the ‘playfulness of the legendary child’s toy,’ with the Ford truck brand proposition of ‘strength, reliability and value.’

Also at Detroit, Mitsubishi displayed concept cars with unique features such as doors that double as suitcases, sofas and coolers, designed with Gen Y in mind.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler’s retro-inspired PT Cruiser, with its rounded fenders and cassette/CD storage area, also aimed to pique the interest of young car buyers when it launched in 2000. ‘Marketing has to come into product design,’ admits Ron Smith, VP marketing at Daimler-Chrysler’s Windsor, Ont.-based Canadian headquarters, who says styling will continue to be a mainstay of the Chrysler brand. ‘What you do is hook that into marketing so consumers see not only nicely styled cars, but also the commercials that try to accentuate their beauty.’