Comical Warburton perfectly nails target

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Marketer: General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac
Agency: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich.
Ad review rating: Three stars

Could it be? Could General Motors--the awkward, lumbering giant dulled by decades of inbreeding in the hollers of southeastern Michigan--finally be rediscovering its long-lost instinct for marketing cars?

It's possible. Oh, the oaf still trips over his big webbed feet, but he seems to be making some progress in locating the brand essence his motor divisions have squandered for nearly 30 years.

For instance, Buick seems finally to have figured out that it is about affordable luxury. Pontiac knows it is selling excitement (the commercials are all terrible, but at least the message is correct and consistent). Saturn is always brilliant in promoting the Saturn ethic of community and dependability.

Oldsmobile is still all over the place, as befits an obsolete brand with no reason to exist since GM brass declined to fold it into Saturn. And Chevrolet apparently doesn't understand that its Americana value is rooted not in the Americana but in the value.

Chevy is value. Chevy is value. Chevy is value. Tell someone in Warren before their market share finally dips below Kia.

But now, just when the Catera debacle made you wonder if these people are complete morons (for not even mentioning the marriage of American luxury and German engineering), here comes the most battered, most dissipated, most mismarketed brand of all staging an advertising revival.

If Cadillac comes back, credit the Seville STS campaign from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles starring "Seinfeld's" Patrick Warburton. Playing Elaine's humorless, ultraintense sometime boyfriend David Puddy, Warburton built a large following. So naturally he's now in commercials.

That's the kind of Big Thinking we've come to expect from GM agencies: desperately pumping borrowed interest from the first up-and-coming celebrity they can afford, not in support of an idea but in place of one. Zero imagination. Zero plausible brand connection. Happens all the time.

Except that, lo and behold, Warburton is perfect. Playing a state trooper, a gatehouse security guard and--in the latest spot--an FBI man, he admiringly scrutinizes the STS and recites its features, in comic earnestness.

"Seville STS," he deadpans in the new spot, having commandeered the car on FBI business, "most powerful front- wheel-drive car in the world, right?" "Yeah," the car owner replies, "beat the [BMW] 540i in the slalom."

"I knew that," Warburton says. "Big fan of the Northstar system. StabiliTrak just about reads your mind when it comes to control."

Meantime, Warburton speeds to his destination, deftly maneuvering around obstacles.

"That was close," the car owner says after narrowly missing a hazard.

"Trust me," Warburton replies. "I'm with the government."

Old joke, but he sells it. And the STS, too. Turns out he's the ideal product presenter: serious-minded and hilarious all at once. And while he talks up the features, we get a very good look at car, inside and out. This is clearly not your father's Seville, not some living room on wheels. It is a luxurious performance machine, the Cadillac of Cadillacs.

Never mind the inane other new spot ridiculing Lexus as pale and declasse--fatuous nonsense that GM has spewed for three decades while turning a great luxury brand into a laughingstock.

Warburton may be just the new blood this exhausted gene pool desperately requires. In all silly seriousness, the impossible task of reviving this devastated brand may be Puddy in his hands.

Copyright April 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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