GM steers Saab onto a greedier road

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Advertiser: Saab Cars USA
Agency: Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.
Ad Review rating: Two stars

Once upon a time, Aesop told us, there was a dog walking happily home with a chop in its mouth. Passing a pond, he saw on the surface his own reflection. Mistaking it for another dog, and wishing to have that dog's chop, too, he opened his mouth to wrest away the prize--only to watch his own chop fall into the water.

The moral?

General Motors is stupid.

Over the past few years, thanks substantially to a charming campaign from Angotti, Thomas, Hedge, New York, called "Find your own road," Saab has built its sales from 18,783 cars in 1993 to 28,354 for 1997. But GM, the principal owner of the Swedish company, is dissatisfied with being a niche brand marketed, like Dr Pepper, to the iconoclastic few.

With the baby boom graying, promising a large opportunity for the upper-middle and luxury segments, the brain trust in Detroit has decided incremental growth from a modest base will not do. It must grow dramatically. It wants its own 28,354 chops, and BMW's 119,314, too.

Never mind that niche player Mazda, having similarly tried to expand its market share, contrived "Passion for the road," one of the more spectacular pratfalls in auto marketing history--an episode so disastrous that the successor campaign now brags that it is a niche brand. Never mind that Volkswagen, having for years floundered as a mass-market brand in the U.S., narrowed its target to Generation X and watched U.S. sales soar.

No, this is General Motors we're talking about, the marketing colossus that sold 1.49 million Chevys, Buicks and Oldsmobiles here in the 1997 model year, vs. only 1.9 million in 1995. So they dumped Angotti, ditched the refreshing and psychographically cunning "Find your own road" and hired the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., to grab the meat from the competition.


One of the new Martin spots, which looks exactly like the new BMW campaign, shows a Saab, in black and white, tooling through some volcanic landscape with the shroud of dusk threatening to overtake it. But, to the swelling chorus of Mozart's Requiem, the driver punches it into fourth and outruns the sunset.

The second shows a 900 Turbo speeding down an aircraft carrier deck--intercut with images of air traffic control. It accelerates to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, then comes to a stop at the water's edge.

To admire its reflection? No.

"Just a little something," the voice-over says, "we learned from Saab fighter planes."

Ah, deja vu. Ten years and three agencies ago, Saab also talked about its fighter heritage. But nobody much cared, because:

a) There's not much technology that jet aircraft and sports sedans have in common. General Electric makes CT scanners, but they don't mention them in their dishwasher ads, do they?

b) Even if there were a credible connection, this isn't exactly the first name in warplanes. While no doubt Saab Aerospace is keeping Sweden safe from the looming Norwegian threat, it's not going to persuade anybody to stay out of a BMW. When McDonnell Douglas comes out with a five-speed coupe, then we can talk.

These commercials aren't dreadful, but there isn't a single frame in either of them that stands out, and speaks to consumers, like every single moment of "Find your own road."

Aesop, this tale may not be. But soon enough, thanks to GM's hubris, this promises to be a Saab story all its own.

Copyright October 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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