We Need to Talk About Automotive Advertisements

In the past I’ve expressed my derision for the Liberty Mutual vehicle insurance advertisements. These “real people” telling stories of how they wrecked their car being imbecilic and somehow it is the insurance company that is “stupid” or “dumb” because they, as a consumer, fail to understand how things with cars work. Things like: everything, insurance and depreciation.

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But Liberty Mutual isn’t the only company that’s at fault. Meaning they aren’t the only company that either thinks or has realized the average consumer has the smarts akin to Miley Cyrus’ inner monologue on decency. Although that isn’t what this article is about entirely, I want to talk about automotive advertising as a whole. Let’s Don Draper this shit.

Don Draper is actually relevant to vehicle advertising. Even though fictions, Mad Men, is based on actual historical advertising culture. One episode in particular featured a substantial conversation about Volkswagen’s early ad campaign that has since become the benchmark of not only automotive advertising but advertising in general. It was informative, quirky and got you talking.

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It seems most advertising, in reference to vehicles these days, can be broken down into one of five categories: pandering, appealing, informative, benign or quirky. Note the oxford comma. Naturally I find pandering to be the most offensive but there are times when the appeal approach get at my gag reflex.

Pandering. Hats off to you Chevrolet. I typically stick to Netflix or Amazon Video but since we recently “cut the cord” and I can no longer get my Curse of Oak Island on cable I’ve picked up some Hulu as well. And Hulu, my friends, well it has commercials. If I have to sit through one more “real people” façade from Chevrolet where a group of automotive automatons are introduced to vehicles via unnecessary opening doors, raising floors or spinning platforms that would make Houdini loose his lunch, I’m going to… well… be even more angry. I will find those people, and I will educate them with countless hours of Top Gear and Wheeler Dealer re-runs and I will kill them.

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It’s a Chevrolet and if you mistake if for an Audi that’s your fault. The only reason you, or anyone else, would mistake that Malibu for an Audi is because Chevrolet copied design elements. This practice is not new, Hyundai did it for years with both their main brand as well as Kia. Surely if it looks like a premium automobile it is. Admiral Akbar would say “It’s a trap” and I would agree. Now I’m not saying that Hyundai and Kia don’t have their merits because they do. The Soul is fabulous and the less overstyled designs coming from Hyundai today are actually quite flattering. And, my god, that warranty is enough to make any premium German automaker wince in terror.

But listen, Chevrolet, all those years Hyundai spent copying other brands and building a repertoire, you spent making substandard products that looked like shit, handled like shit and populated the local Avis lot like bees in a hive. Yes, your cars now are substantially better but as a Volkswagenophile, stop comparing your cars to an Audi. You’d be lucky to have them mistaken for a Ford.

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Oh and who or what is J.D. Power? What’s with the initial quality? This is where the pandering comes full circle. Well the wiki-machine tells us that J.D. Power and his rarely named associates are an “American-based global marketing information services company founded in 1968 by James David Power III. The company conducts surveys of customer satisfaction, product quality, and buyer behavior for industries ranging from cars to marketing and advertising firms.” Alright, so he… or it… or them is pretty much the Rand Corporation for consumers and one of the many things they test is initial quality. Now I looked on the interwebs and have yet to come across an actual award. J.D. Powers’ website does mention their initial quality study and, as outlined in a recent parody commercial, accounts for the first 90 days of a new vehicle. Now, I’m a sucker for quality, but I think I want my vehicle to be good for more than just the first 90 days. Yes, the walls keep opening and we see all of the vehicles that had good initial quality… maybe that’s because since the government buyout GM has been revamping all of their vehicles. A ton of new vehicles equals dominance in new quality awards. And they are better, they really are, but don’t rest your advertising laurels on a bullshit 90 day rating. Stop pandering and give us an enjoyable, informative commercial.

Now an appealing ad is one that hits your right in the feelers. That’s pretty straight forward. Or is it? There is good execution (Subaru) and poor execution (Toyota). Subaru has built itself on the loyalty of its consumer base and the “connection” people feel with their Foresters, Outbacks and nigh even their B9 Tribecas. Oh B9 Tribeca how you died before your time. Now I’m not a Subaru guy, I’ve only owned one WRX and I didn’t connect to it like I did my ’74 Beetle, but it did have its own samuri-ish personality.

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My wife’s Prius… well I had a connection with that too. “Comeon you sonofabitch, go! I don’t want to die.” Now, if I’m being candid, I did have an affection for that car. It was quirky and different, but unintentionally, like driving a spaceship missing two of the three engines and I liked that. But damn was it slow and unevenly paced; ironically much like Toyotas advertising. The quality of Toyotas commercials reminds me of something a dealer would put out but with more money behind it. Yes, local dealer commercials can be hilarious-especially when the feature Gary Busey, but when you are a major automaker and every commercial ends with the same bright white screen and late ‘90s animation of a spinning globe with a random pictures of cars it’s just lame. Everything about the situations are generic and the actors are flat and lack depth. Yes, Toyota makes good cars. Yes, some car-aficionados like Toyota. No, not all people who buy Toyota’s think vehicles are just everyday appliances. Yes, no matter what you do to a Camry it is, still in fact, a Camry. Don’t dress it up like something it’s not and stop trying to advertise it with appeal. It just comes off robotic and uninspired. Cash in on the reliability and move one. Everyone else has.

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Informative. Do I really need to go into this? The commercial presents straight information. Each automaker dabbles in this area from time to time. Informative ads are the fallback and as long as that information isn’t “Initial Quality” they should be good.

Benign advertising. Most luxury automakers use this. Pretty much just “artistic” cuts of the vehicle with no substance. They bank on the reputation the marque and simply say, “here is our car” along with some artsy fartsy dialogue meant to invoke emotion. Sorry, but I can’t see past Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson just like Sean Penn will always be Jeff Spicoli no matter how much he Milks it. Get it? He was in a movie called Milk. Never mind.

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Quirky, now this category is my favorite. It is where Volkswagen succeeded so many years ago and sometimes hits with today. In my opinion, and if you’ve read this far you actually care about my opinion, this is the one that sells the most cars. This is the one that establishes soul. This is the one that gets people into the dealership. I won’t belabor the Volkswagen aspect, current day or historically, cause it’s often their niche. No I want to talk about a brand that most of you won’t expect. One that would win, if it existed, the JD Power award for Initial Poor Quality.

Fiat

Fiat is important. Why? Because, like Mini (who doesn’t really advertise at all), they represent a niche in the American market that hasn’t existed since the early days of Volkswagen. It’s something different. And we need something different. We’ve been begging for something different. In a landscape of small and large CUVs, Minivans, and pickup trucks there has to be something else. Fiat is now our something else. They know it, you know it, now you must accept it. This is where their advertising is key. Most of it focuses on Italian roots, the quirkiness of their vehicles, humor and sexiness. “Sex sells Gwen, sex sells.” Listen to VanWilder, he is both humorous and wise.

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When you see a Fiat advert (and the occasional humorous VW one) it is a breath of fresh air amongst the stale, flaccid attempts by other marques. Sure their quality is shit right now. Sure the vehicle is peculiar and oddly designed. But it’s Italian, you should’ve known that going in and that’s why you love it. That vehicle has a soul and that is something that starts with advertising. It’s what you should want when you walk into that showroom. Plus, they aren’t doing so hot, so I’m sure you could get an excellent deal on a new one. Just buy that extended warranty and make sure your insurance how rental car coverage.

Live damnit. Live!

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