Car Marketing That Asks Dobrow to Dream the Impossible

Media Reviews for Media People: Automakers' Web Plays

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Denial and willful ignorance are the two doomsday weapons in my sanity-maintenance arsenal. While I'm neither a sunny optimist nor Morrissey, most of the news crossing my desk in recent months has been sufficiently depressing to prompt me to turn off the internet. As a result, since September I've inhaled only enough information about our end-of-days economic plight to keep me conversational at cocktail parties ("Gee, you know who's really taking it on the chin? WaMu!").

Honda's 'The Power of Dreams:' Arty camera angles, images of lightbulbs suddenly illuminating, and Honda engineers dressed in their finest khaki-wear.
Honda's 'The Power of Dreams:' Arty camera angles, images of lightbulbs suddenly illuminating, and Honda engineers dressed in their finest khaki-wear.
And still I can't dodge the floundering auto industry. Given my particular demographic makeup -- sports-addicted, hairy-shouldered, easily distracted by shiny objects that go zoom and whirr -- car marketers have long sidled up to me, hoping that their mix of sloganeering and sporty tail fins will prompt a purchase. They might have targeted me too effectively: I've long since become inured to all but the most irritating auto marketing, whether they be the 30-second spots that dot my ball games or the product integrations that divert me from KITT's attempts to save damsel and democracy alike.

I assumed the industry's financial distress would have tempered its poke-Larry marketing budgets by now. Instead, the efforts seem to have intensified, with programs focusing on features and 'tude replaced by ones focusing on price and value. They've also migrated the battle to an annoying new front: my computer.

It is on the web that many of these companies fancy themselves content providers. The model for such efforts has to be BMW Films, in which the novelty of the concept -- advertising that is sorta advertising-ish, but not completely -- distracts viewers from the banality of the flicks themselves. The number of similar-minded efforts has multiplied to the extent that they're almost as difficult to avoid as "Saved by Zero" (I will not dignify its existence with a link).

Which begs the question: With marketing dollars in increasingly short supply, why should automakers aim narrow rather than broad? Why ratchet up their niche appeal at a time when they need to get their brand in front of as many eyeballs as possible? Granted, the films and the short stories aren't expenditures on par with Super Bowl commercial airtime or actually designing/manufacturing a model that's functional and pretty and environmentally sound. But I have to wonder whether any of them do anything to sell cars.

This is why the current spate of web "content" from Honda, Lexus and Pontiac is a waste of everybody's time and resources. After perusing all three, I come away with some idea of how each brand would like to be perceived. (Innovative! Inventive! Did we mention innovative?!) At no point, however, do I come across an image, a feature, a lifestyle tie-in or anything else that makes me want to plunk down a few dollars. That's still the point of marketing, as I understand it.

Of the three, Honda's effort looks the most expensive. Asking viewers to "Dream the Impossible," Honda has created a series of short films -- which tap "the candid approach of the documentary film process" and as such totally aren't advertising -- where Honda employees and paid Honda endorsers say nice things about Honda, Honda's philosophy and Honda's supreme awesomeness. The takeaway here: Honda is as much a shining beacon of benevolence, class and munificence as the Pope, or perhaps even Tom Hanks. In one film, we learn that failures are the secret to success; in another, we are invited to "kick out the ladder" and, in doing so, "discover this inspirational metaphor that has helped impossible dreams come true." Both feature arty camera angles, images of lightbulbs suddenly illuminating, and Honda engineers dressed in their finest khaki-wear. Yup.

Lexus Magazine, on the other hand, lures visitors with a nine-part novella composed by authors of some renown (Jane Smiley, Robert Ferrigno and others). The novella, "In the Belly of the Beast," reads nicely enough and doesn't go overboard on the Lexus worship. I just don't get why anybody but hard-core disciples of the nine authors would choose to devote their leisure hours to a product-tied featurette instead of, say, "The Ruins" or "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer." You know, a real book. As for the rest of Lexus Magazine, well, there are bits on Lexus trivia, fine wines and sushi – think a massively undercurated and understaffed airline magazine, but less visually alluring. A print version of Lexus Magazine may be out there somewhere; if anyone has a copy, send 'er my way.

Finally, there's the well-intentioned piffle that is the Pontiac Underground site and its affiliated YouTube channel. The former offers links to minimally critical blogs and harmless pro-Pontiac banter -- "But, as cold as it is outside (wind chills of -20 degrees expected over the next couple of days), the hot products on the show floor tend to warm everyone up, and this year is no exception." The latter compiles Pontiac ads and a handful of its racing-enthusiast videos, which may or may not have been produced specifically for online consumption. As such, both entities should prove as indispensable to web-minded Pontiac fanboys as a Schwinn.

If it's any consolation, Pontiac's online marketeers did spur one sale: that of a catchy Blonde Redhead song featured on one of the sites, which I promptly snapped up from iTunes. The band, Steve Jobs and 4AD Records are surely appreciative for the shout-out.

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