Why McCann-Erickson's Corpse-in-a-Fedora Ads Fail

By Published on .

Client: Buick
Agency: McCann-Erickson, Troy, Mich.
Star Rating: 1.5

That nattily dressed legend of car design who haunts the new Buick campaign has risen from the grave to save Buick from itself.

"Once upon a time," he declares in the introductory spot, "I designed the

Back from the dead, Harley Earl hawks Buicks.
cars that defined an entire era of American style. And I've come back to build you a great car."

Maybe. But the late Harley Earl is more early than late. Harley's ghost will spend the Christmas season speaking of stylish Buicks past and stylish Buicks future.

Hauntingly absent are any stylish Buicks present.

The campaign is called "Spirit of American Style," but it should be called "Wouldn't you really rather have a 1940 or 2006 Buick?"

It's Mr. K meets "This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile": A who-dat phantom of long-forgotten heritage invoked to announce a revolution not yet occurred. And it's just the latest unfathomable blunder by General Motors and one of its old-line agencies. The culprit this time: McCann-Erickson, Troy, Mich., which is now faced with the unenviable task of combining a dead, irrelevant pitchman with a live one.

Pained laugh
If you want to have a pained laugh at someone else's expense, check out the introductory Harley Earl commercial, which ends -- in one of the more awkward non sequiturs you'll ever see -- with $30 million Buick spokesgolfer Tiger Woods looking for the source of Earl's spectral voice.

"Somebody in here?" he asks.

No, Tiger. Nobody and nothing -- except the frightful clank and clatter of terrible decisions being made, your hiring among them. (Here's what his famous face says about the brand: "Hi, I'm the greatest golfer in the world and Buick has given me $30 million so some lucky General Motors and McCann-Erickson executives can have some ritzy golf weekends, and wine-and-dine some dealers and drop some fancy names on the shareholders' dime.")

Call for help
The Woods signing was like a call for help: We are out of ideas. We have utterly lost track of what it is we are selling. Fire us, before we market again. But no, now the brain trust that cannot be trusted has resurrected Harley Earl to brag about style at least two years too soon. Yes, he's jaunty and intriguing -- and also a vivid reminder that Buick is not, particularly at the moment or anytime recently.

What gives here? How hard can it be to contrive a brand strategy that isn't so plainly wrong?

There was a time -- all of the 1980s, let's say -- when Buick's identity crisis was understandable. GM was still in the throes of its disastrous strategy of consolidating platforms and body types with only superficial distinctions among the divisions. The colors of the GM palette, especially Buick and Oldsmobile, just ran together.

Suddenly about style
But this is 2002. Olds is all but gone. Cadillac is resurgent as a credible symbol of American luxury. Pontiac is allegedly excitement. Chevy stands for (or, at least, should stand for) all-American value. Saturn is unpretentious quality. That leaves plenty of opportunity for Buick to state, restate and eventually own the concept of affordable luxury. Indeed, it has intermittently, half-heartedly, in the past tried to stake that claim -- but not now, because now it's suddenly "style." Now it's a corpse in a fedora promising "to build you a great car."

Which would be, what -- a Century with an even bigger bench seat?

And therein the biggest sin of all -- not that Buick insists on selling what it doesn't yet have, but that it bizarrely, foolishly and self-destructively refuses to sell what it's had all along.

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