100 YEARS OF AUTO ADS;FOR SHOPS, THERE'S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR CAR WORK;COMMENTARY: WANT TO MAKE THE A TEAM? AD REVIEW COLUMNIST CONCLUDES AUTO BUSINESS IS THE ONLY WAY AGENCIES ARE ALLOWED TO TOUCH CONSUMERS' SOULS (PART 1)

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Car commercials aren't merely car commercials.

For starters, just from the perspective of the people who do this stuff for a living, there's the cosmic enormity of it all.

You can argue all you want about whether Madison Avenue is advertising Mecca, but there's no denying the car business is advertising Valhalla.

An agency can have a trophy case full of Clios, Effies and Gold Lions, a reputation as a creative hothouse, profitability out the wazoo, but it is never taken completely seriously-never regarded with a full measure of deference and respect-without a car account.

EVEN A YUGO

It doesn't even have to be a particularly big car account. It can be Subaru. It can be Saab. Hell, it can be Yugo. But, land that sucker and all of a sudden you're a player.

Then, with media budgets in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, you can commence making advertising that penetrates the hearts and minds of the consumer-partly due to the megatons of media weight, but also because consumer hearts and minds are already predisposed to hearing what you have to say.

This is a culture that is married to the automobile: as transportation, as status symbol, as sexual surrogate, as the ultimate expression of the consumer society.

HUMMING ABOUT CARS

We make movies about cars ("The Yellow Rolls Royce," "The Great Race," "Cannonball Run," "Days of Thunder"). We watch TV shows about cars ("Route 66," "Knight Rider," "My Mother the Car"). We buy records about cars ("Little GTO," "Little Deuce Coupe"). Is it any wonder then that a few TV spots, rigorously applied, can get a whole nation humming about cars?

"See the USA in Your Chevrolet." "Come Away With Me Lucille, in my Merry Oldsmobile." "Wouldn't You Really Rather Have a Buick?" "The Heartbeat of America."

Is that Fred and Ethel Mertz doing a trunk-act song and dance for the '57 Ford? Why, yes, it is. Is that Pat Boone and Dinah Shore in a clean-cut duet for Chevrolet? But of course.

Is that Milton Berle serenading Peter Lawford about the '50 Buick? Darn tootin'. Is that Bob Seger rasping "Like a Rock" for Chevy truck? Yes, it is, and bless his achin' heart for doing it. For 50 years, car advertising has been a melody we can't get out of our heads.

Oh, and, yeah, sometimes it also sells automobiles.

SELDOM A TELE-SVENGALI

The polite thing to say in celebration of car commercials, of course, is that in addition to being woven into the social fabric, these ads are sirens or snake charmers or tele-Svengalis, enrapturing us as they gently mesmerize us into purchasing submission. The truth is, however, they seldom do anything like that.

Never mind that an entire nation was tapping its feet to "Heartbeat of America" while buying fewer Chevrolets with each passing year (because Chevy had become more like the Congestive Heart Failure of America).

TALKIN' PICKUPS

Never mind that an advertising blitz by Ford Motor Co. won the attention of virtually every man, woman and child in the U.S. to introduce the Edsel, only to produce the most fabulous flop in marketing history. Concentrate instead on that wonderful spot everyone always talks about for the Ford F-series pickup.

Huh? It doesn't come to mind? OK, think of your favorite Ford Taurus commercial. No doubt there are literally dozens of classics that come to mind, but which one is your very favorite?

Can't think of one of those, either? Could it be because there's never been a clever or hilarious or memorable, much less beloved, Taurus commercial? Yet Taurus and the F-series pickups are perennial sales leaders.

Why? Because most of the time the reason people indebt themselves for five years to buy a new automobile has little to do with what's in a TV commercial. Price, safety, features, performance, pedigree, roominess, style, brand loyalty-even irrational, glandular infatuation-yes, but seldom the TV commercial.

GOOD ADS....AND GREAT ADS

To dealers, who just want you to visit the showroom where the real selling takes place, brand awareness is Job 1 and the advertising philosophy is first do no harm. Show the car. Make it sexy. Negotiate that winding, rain-slicked road at dawn. Compare it favorably to a Mercedes. And pound away with gross ratings points, because in the marketplace there is scant difference between pretty good car commercials and pretty bad car commercials. That's the bad news.

The good news, however, is in the corollary: There is a huge difference, a vast difference, an incalculable difference between pretty good advertising and great advertising. Some of the greatest advertising ever done has been for cars, and great advertising performs great wonders.

Consider the greatest of all: Doyle Dane Bernbach's legendary work on behalf of the Volkswagen.

Notwithstanding marketplace conditions that perhaps predestined the utilitarian VW as a successful niche product, what created the Beetle phenomenon was not mere market timing. It was ad after Bernbach ad capturing not so much the features of the Beetle as the style, attitude and meaning of the Beetle.

TOUCHING CONSUMERS' SOULS

Whether it was a wry revelation-how the snowplow driver gets to his snowplow-or the hilarious fable on the wages of extravagance, as in "Funeral," or the disarming logic of keeping up with the Kremplers, VW offered the ultimate convergence of the right market at the right time with advertising that entertained, informed and touched the soul of the consumer.

Intermittently, and in varying degrees, the best of car advertising has done much the same thing.

See COMMERCIALS on Page S-14

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