AUTO MARKETING: NEW IMAGE SHOWN, BUT DO YOU BUY IT?

BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW

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Used-car salesmen.

Apparently, and we could be wrong about this, apparently they have some sort of . . . oh, I don't know . . . image problem? Watching their depiction in advertising and the rest of popular culture, you'd almost think they were regarded as somehow less than completely trustworthy. Fast-talking. Insincere. Manipulative. Venal. Unscrupulous. Cagey. Shiftless.

And very badly dressed.

They're always depicted with slicked-back hair, unsightly neckties and sports jackets louder than a 1967 Camaro with a bad muffler. In ads and elsewhere, they're essentially synonymous with sleaze. Stick some clown in a polyester jacket, put some neck jewelry on him and-voila!-instant visual metaphor for Deceit.

This unsavory image, in fact, is essentially the problem which the recent emergence of used-car superstores purports to solve. If sleazy operators with pinky rings are why you are afraid to buy a used car, then AutoNation USA and CarMax are the reasons, at long last, to set your mind at ease.

And that's why it's a miracle, a bona fide miracle, that neither company in its advertising to date has been particularly focused on the shady stereotype.

Of 10 spots produced by DeVito/Verdi, New York, for CarMax, only one depicts a car-lot sharpie. A lone spot from Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, for AutoNation USA, shows such a character for one scant second.

"Welcome to AutoNation USA," the narrator says, in part, "where, for the very first time, you have rights in buying a car." He goes on in that vein-addressing his "fellow citizens"-in describing the wide selection, warranty, no-haggle pricing and money back guarantee, insuring that "you have the right to drive down any road in the auto nation with peace of mind."

It's a textured, stylish sort of appeal, just dripping with lush landscape photography and all the cinematic cues for integrity, substance and even patriotism. We are presented with this car-buyers' Bill of Rights, after all, as wholesome Americans of every diverse kind tool down that long ribbon of American highway with all above them that endless skyway and all below them that golden valley in this land, made for you and me.

The copy points are all there, but the main thing is not what this ad represents so much as what it is the antithesis of: Dealin' Dan the Used Car Man, and his entire unmentioned, unmentionable ilk.

The CarMax work sets an entirely different tone, trading not on SweetCam implications of wholesomeness but on DeVito/Verdi's trademark smart-alecky directness. It's basically one problem-resolution gag after another, each illustrating another brand benefit. One indeed shows a slimy Sid taking advantage of a kid on his used-car lot, but others choose less obvious metaphors for the danger and uncertainty of car purchasing-such as, memorably, a spider, in its web, devouring a helpless fly.

The most amusing shows a series of people primping and preening in preparation for their driver's license photos, all of which come out dreadfully. The message: "Pay more than you have to for a used car, and you'll even more ridiculous than you do on your drivers' license. If that's possible."

Like all the CarMax spots, it's quite attention-getting. But, then, so is the guy in the loud coat. The question is, now that they have our attention, do we believe what they have to say?