Toyota's Ad Demonstrates How Not to Sell Cars

The New Corolla Commercial Is Full of Abstractions and Self-Reflection

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I can imagine the roomful of dealers when Toyota debuted the primary TV commercial for its campaign to launch the 2014 Corolla. Called "Style Never Goes Out of Style," it shows various past Corolla models surrounded by period-appropriate dancers, music and schtick. Even after hearing about the extensive research and intent that went into its creation, the dealers must have begun to madly calculate how they were going to sell the cars in spite of it.

The ad provides a textbook case in mistakes to avoid when you contemplate your next campaign, with these four broad points to keep in mind:

The days of announcing branding are over. No ad can say a brand is "cool" or "different," or credibly claim any other quality, since consumers are too cynical and distrusting to believe it anymore. The Toyota spot expends considerable time and obvious expense to declare that the Corolla has always been "with it," when we know it has been mostly a boring, utilitarian and otherwise highly successful model. MTV had a saying long ago that if you had to say you were cool, you weren't. Corolla isn't.

Self-reflection isn't differentiation. Nobody is ever going to love your brand as much as you do unless, like you, they're paid to feel that way. The company's press release about the new Corolla touts many design changes that must be important internally, but from the glimpses that the outside world is given in the spot, it looks like, well, every other car in its category. There's something almost satirical about how the new model is presented (wholly unintended, I'd expect). The dancers are more memorable.

Complicated research conclusions are doomed. The company says that its extensive research told it that 1) Millennials are looking to upgrade their careers, 2) they're looking for a "real" car to get them there, and that, implicitly 3) the Corolla campaign should continue the momentum of the company's Let's Go Places brand direction. Not only does little of that make any sense (most notably, Millennials don't see cars as symbols the way their parents did), but how Toyota got from that to the TV spot is beyond me.

Repetition of nonsense is still nonsense. The ad is part of a vast campaign, so it could be defended with the breakfast cereal gambit ("sure, there's no nutrition in the box, but when served with an apple and glass of orange juice, it's part of a balanced breakfast"). Toyota lists all of the mobile, social and experimental components that comprise the campaign, but they seem to all propagate the same nonsense. There's something to be said about staying "on brand," but not to the exclusion of saying anything useful to anybody.

I'm not as much surprised as saddened that such nutty beliefs and misconceptions about advertising (and marketing overall) can lead otherwise smart, creative people to squander their effort, money and the patience of would-be consumers. I'm sure there are binders full of rationale for why it's stunningly brilliant stuff, and there'll be metrics that declare the spot a wild success. But believing those arguments, or valuing those outcomes, requires that you first ignore the four truisms I stated above.

Advertising used to be about communicating information that was memorable, meaningful and useful. By those measures, the new Corolla spot delivers only an unintended punch to Toyota's dealers, who probably need to meet really high sales quotas. Doing so is going to require a lot more than people dancing around cars.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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