Saturn ad inscrutable but entirely irresistible

By Published on .

Advertiser: General Motors Corp.
Agency: Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco
Ad Review rating: Three and 1/2 stars

Kid stands in a grassy field and plays the sousaphone. Badly.

He just stands there, right of frame, against the backdrop of a blue prairie sky, tooting away at "When the Saints Go Marching In." Thirty seconds come and go with no clue whatsoever as to why we are watching this. But we are watching. It's inscrutable, yet irresistible.

Then, finally, after another commercial, comes the payoff. Same kid. Same tuba. Only now, after a few bars, a car pulls up. It's Mom in a two-door Saturn.

But wait . . . it's not a two-door. She springs a latch and a third door opens, on the driver's side, giving the kid and his instrument room to pile in. Ah.

"Arriving at last, from Saturn," the voice-over says, "the world's first three-door coupe. Why didn't anyone think of this before?"

So, yes, it's a surprising bookend technique to dramatize a surprising design feature. But no surprise there.

From the very beginning, Saturn advertising from Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, has been unexpected--unexpected, understated and unsurpassed in its ability to carve out a brand image.

Actually, the ads transcended mere brand image; they defined brand meaning. Saturn, we have learned, isn't just an economy car lovingly built under an enlightened labor-management partnership in bucolic Spring Hill, Tenn. It is a community of car builders, car dealers and car owners with a shared set of values.

Buying a Saturn is like joining the Unitarian Church, only more spiritual.

Unfortunately, while there is a lot to be said for the Saturn's sense of utilitarian, patriotic, safe, semi-iconoclasm, you can't trade forever on that alone. While the cars are solid and dependable, they aren't as good as the Japanese competition. Moreover, when it's time for satisfied, loyal owners to trade up, Saturn offers no place to go. There's no roomy midsize Saturn to buy, no van, no sport-utility.

And with gasoline about half the price per gallon of Dr Pepper, who needs a compact car? (Answer: 15% fewer buyers than last year.)

Thus has the company spent the past six months de-emphasizing its unique Saturnness and focusing on the cars themselves. One wonderful commercial, running since summer, shows a dad being awakened from a weekend nap by a thumping sound outside. The kids are playing baseball and using his Saturn as a backstop. Alarmed, he rushes downstairs and demands the baseball bat--which he then uses to demonstrate a proper swing.

He is totally unfazed about the car, see, because of the dent-resistant side body panels.

Another delightful ad shows off the Saturn Web site with a college kid ordering a car from his dorm room as if he were ordering a pizza. When the car is delivered, the roomie who answers the door is priceless: "Anybody order a Saturn?"

And now the three-door coupe work, which is marvelous, too. A second spot shows a guy standing outside a restaurant with a woman draped over his shoulder. He, too, just stands there until his buddy pulls up in a Saturn. When the hidden third door is unlatched, the "woman" is revealed to be a mannequin."

Why was he standing there with a mannequin? Doesn't matter. The point is we pay strict attention to see where this is going. It certainly isn't Riney's fault that the answer, for a company in Saturn's predicament, is not nearly far enough.

Copyright November 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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