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IT'S BEEN NEARLY A YEAR SINCE Janis Joplin returned screeching to life, courtesy of Lowe & Partners/SMS' Janis-jingled commercial for Mercedes-Benz E Class cars. In hindsight, that spot-which was recently named one of the year's top 10 by Time, but which also has more than its share of detractors (one longtime veteran of Mercedes advertising describes the spot as "an absolute disconnect")-may have heralded a new era in European import car advertising. In the past, the practice of co-opting rock songs was fine for the latest Chevy spot, but work for Mercedes, BMW and the like tended to take the long and winding high road.

No more. In recent months, BMW has hitched a ride on the coattails of secret agent James Bond. Volkswagen has taken to blasting rock music while racing around with overcaffeinated Gen Xers. Volvo has been reading Jack Kerouac aloud (ouch!), and Mercedes, when not resurrecting dead rockers, has been digging up deceased crooners (Bing Crosby) and moribund talk show sidekicks (Ed McMahon). In the European import category, once an oasis of elegant, understated advertising, the volume has been turned up and tradition is being turned on its head.

Brands such as Mercedes, BMW and Volvo used to revel in their own Euro-superior images; Volkswagen, meanwhile, was less haughty, but its advertising (pre-Fahrvergnugen) was no less proud and distinctive. But the current crop of European import campaigns has a different feel to it-a little slicker and hipper, more Americanized, and more broad based in its appeals. The traditional sharply focused positionings of the imports-such as Volvo's Swedish obsession with safety and BMW's Teutonic passion for engineering-have been softened and broadened, with ads now hyping the standard laundry lists of luxury and performance features, and with an emphasis on the ubiquitous phrase "fun to drive." As Lowe's Lee Garfinkel says of the Mercedes campaign, "We're trying to make the advertising more accessible, more approachable, more fun." In short, those cold Germans and Swedes are now crying out: "Velcome!"

But in the creative community, at least, all this warmed-up importuning has tended to leave people cold. "Five years ago, import car advertising was clearly better than anything being done in Detroit," says Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. "I don't think that's the case anymore. I'm seeing Jeep advertising now that's more interesting than the import work."

That assessment is shared by other creative directors, many of whom tend to watch this category with more than a passing interest. That's because the import campaigns have long been considered the class of car advertising, wherein simple, strong concepts have usually taken precedence over the kind of "Heartbeat of America" jingles and glitzy, vacant execution favored by Detroit carmakers and their large agencies. Traditionally, the import category, both European and Japanese, has been the place where the smaller, more creative-driven agencies-Goodby, Ammirati & Puris, Fallon McElligott, Wieden & Kennedy and others-have gotten a chance to show what they can do, often with interesting, if not always successful, results. "The import category has always been the place where the best ideas for car advertising came from," says Hampel & Stefanides' Dean Stefanides, who in the past has worked on BMW and Volvo.

And that's been particularly true of the European imports. While the Japanese brands have certainly had their advertising moments-Subaru in the late '80s, and Honda, Nissan, and Lexus sporadically over the past decade-the Euro imports have produced great campaigns over extended periods of time. And along the way, they've managed to make advertising history-beginning with the great Volkswagen and Volvo campaigns of the '60s and '70s, produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, Carl Ally, and Scali McCabe Sloves, and then following up with stellar work for Mercedes and BMW in the '80s by McCaffrey & McCall and Ammirati & Puris. Lee Garfinkel, now a leader of the new pack of Euro import advertisers, is respectful of the category's past: "This is where some of the best advertising in history has been done," he says.

But Garfinkel is also aware that lately the category hasn't been living up to that tradition. "Right now, the creative work on imports ranges from average to mediocre," he cracks. Similarly, in interviews with more than a dozen top creative directors who have worked on imports now or in the past, there is a nearly unanimous feeling that this once distinctive ad category has taken a turn for the worse.

In fairness, not all of this can be blamed on the new campaigns; most feel that import car advertising has been slipping for the past few years. Nor is there a consensus that all the new import work has fallen flat. Many believe that, among Japanese imports, Goodby's Isuzu work has been hitting a high mark; among the European brands, there is praise for Grace & Rothschild's Land Rover ads, along with mixed though generally favorable feelings about Lowe's Mercedes work, which is considered highly energetic and noticeable-if a little uneven.

But in general, creative directors say, there's a sameness that has crept into the import category as a whole. "It's just less fresh than it used to be," says Stefanides.

"People aren't going out there and finding new ideas. You're seeing the same safety features being touted across the board, the same executions." Roy Grace of Grace & Rothschild, whose track record includes the classic DDB work on Volkswagen, also cites the absence in many of the new campaigns of a central idea or theme that ties the ads together; "there's a lack of consistency," he says. And Gary Goldsmith of Goldsmith/Jeffrey, also a VW veteran from his days at DDB, says he believes import advertising "has become homogenized, like the rest of the car advertising."

If that's so, how and why did it happen? Critics blame a number of factors. Some see the corrupting influence of bigger budgets on import car campaigns; these once simple ads "now seem to be getting more and more caught up in camera angles and slick execution," says Pat Burnham of McKinney & Silver, whose agency now works on Audi. Others point to the growing influence of car dealers, who, in the words of Mullen creative director and recent BMW advertiser Paul Silverman, "constantly push the manufacturer and the agency to show more and more sheet metal in the ads." With the emphasis shifted toward production values punctuated with endless car shots and features lists, "the import ads seem to be rushing to catch up with the mediocrity of Detroit advertising," says John Doig, creative director at Doig Elliott Schur, which handles some dealer advertising for Mercedes.

It may be that the one factor that has most influenced the new work is the import carmakers' recent attempts "to be all things to all people," says Goldsmith. He maintains that the current incoherence of import advertising is simply an outgrowth of increasingly broad and ill-defined marketing strategies by the manufacturers. "These brands each used to have a niche, and stood for something very clear, like BMW's 'Ultimate Driving Machine,'*" says Goldsmith. "But in the past couple of years they've introduced more models at more price points-they've decided that they want to go after everyone." Goodby agrees with that assessment. "Before, companies like BMW and Mercedes were content to be narrow in their appeal, and now they're broadening that," he says. "And I think that affects the advertising. Good advertising comes from taking a strong product stance."

The creators of the new import campaigns acknowledge that they are, indeed, having to promote more models at a broader range of prices than ever before (Fallon McElligott, for example, is promoting a dozen BMW models, including a new one priced at the sub-Taurus level of around $20,000). But that's only part of the reason why some imports are moving away from classic positionings and strategies. "You may start out with a very clear and well-defined niche, but you have to evolve that niche position over time," says Ron Berger of Volvo agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer. "I think the imports are not as single-minded as they once were. All the cars are now trying to appeal to people on more than one level, to make themselves accessible to more people." One result of that approach, Berger admits, is that the advertising may end up with "softer selling propositions to work with-which can make it more of a challenge to remain distinctive."

Volvo appears to be a case in point. In its '60s and '70s advertising heyday, the brand stressed durability (one of the more classic headlines was Ed McCabe's "Fat cars die young") and safety. Messner Vetere had until very recently continued to hammer home that relentless core safety position; in fact, a number of spots seen last year continue to focus on the car as an indestructible mobile womb, with a series consisting of mini-profiles of people who, according to a soothing Donald Sutherland voiceover, "share a belief that a car saved their lives." But this past fall, Messner introduced a new series of Volvo spots for the sporty model 850, titled "A Moment in the Life of a Car Company," which trades in the dramatic and serious safety message for a bouncy lifestyle approach. One spot features a Gen-X couple (the woman is straight out of the '90s bad girl Drew Barrymore mold) driving to Las Vegas to get married; a second stars three young jocks who rib each other while driving home from a basketball game; and a third features an older couple, the husband reading from "On the Road" while his wife does a Neal Cassady behind the wheel. Almost as soon as the new spots appeared, critics chided Messner for abandoning the fail-safe safety position. (It probably didn't help that the campaign occasionally features pretentious writing, including lines such as, "The sky is an essay on the wonders and variations of the color red.") But Berger defends the strategic shift. "We could have continued to do safety until the cows came home," he says. "But today, with airbags, a lot of cars can talk about safety." Besides, says Berger, Volvo has done such a strong job of advertising safety that "to continue to talk about it would be preaching to the choir. The thing we had to address was the perception that Volvos were driven by a woman with a baby in the back. We needed to evolve the driver imagery, and appeal to a younger audience with a 'fun to drive' message."

Messner isn't the only agency trying to fuel-inject "fun" into European brand images. Virtually all are, including BMW, whose first campaign from new agency Fallon McElligott has moved away from the old Ammirati approach-wry headlines, supported by a forceful and articulate case for German engineering-in a fairly dramatic way. The new agency's first spots tied in with the James Bond film "GoldenEye." It seems Pierce Brosnan is not an Aston-Martin man. Fallon's subsequent spot for BMW had an otherworldly tone, as it showed a spirit rising from a treestruck BMW and then wafting into a factory, whereupon it enters the body of a new BMW. The latest ads in this seemingly disconnected series are goofy, visual sketches that don't seem to have a lot of connection to the performance-edged concept of the ultimate driving machine: in one slapstick spot revolving around a simple sight gag, a man with a stiff neck gets such a jolt from driving a BMW that his neck instantly straightens out. In another, an animated penguin that keeps slipping on an ice floe (for more on the production aspect of creating critters like this, see page 26) waddles up to a BMW equipped with a traction control feature. Asked about the campaign, outside observers don't seem to know what to make of it. "Starting with James Bond, they seem to be relying on gimmicks," says one creative director. "The problem is, what good does James Bond do for this brand tomorrow? It's short-term thinking."

In fairness to Fallon McElligott, the agency is just getting its flippers wet, and it had to produce the first couple of spots on the fly after being awarded the account without a review last year; as for the Bond promotion, it was not FM's idea. "We've just finished our planning now," admitted FM group creative director Bruce Bildsten in late December, a couple of months after the campaign had broken. Still, Bildsten supported the concepts and styles of the early spots, and indicated that the campaign would continue to take a light tone, downplaying engineering. "The brand is seen as being Teutonic and cold, and a bit too serious," says Bildsten. "So we're trying to warm them up, to bring more wit and charm into the advertising." But what about all the people who liked the fact that BMW was a serious automobile? "You don't want to lose that," admits Bildsten. "It's a fine line you have to walk."

Garfinkel acknowledges that Lowe is walking that line with Mercedes, too. "Of course we have to maintain the quality image," he says, "but we have to bring in a lighter tone because that's the way to speak to a younger market. This is about the future; if Mercedes doesn't start talking to people like me, they're going to be in trouble a few years down the road."

Garfinkel has opted to inject not just humor but a heavy dose of pop culture into the latest Mercedes ads. One spot features cameos by chic fashion designers, including Isaac Mizrahi and Donna Karan; another shows still photos of Crosby, Yul Brynner and other dead celebrities standing alongside their vintage motorcars, with the tagline, "All born too soon." Still more celebs show up in a humorous spot featuring a driver who's having so much fun he cruises past a hitchhiking Paulina Porizkova and the aforementioned McMahon, who's waving a gigantic Publisher's Clearinghouse check. In a jarring departure, another spot uses computer-animated charging rhinos to make a brutal point about side-impact airbags. And finally, the campaign floats off into the clouds with a somewhat baffling spot featuring a trio of cupids, who run into turbulence from a speeding car. Clearly, the campaign has drawn attention (for what it's worth, USA Today rated it the No. 2 campaign of last year), but some feel the whole may be less than the sum of its parts. "Some of the individual ads are interesting," says Goodby, "but I'm not sure what to make of the campaign as a whole." Ron Lawner, creative director at Volkswagen agency Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot, concurs that the campaign is "all over the place," and also questions the wisdom of the "approachable" strategy. "I think they're trying to be so approachable that it doesn't ring true," he says. "A Mercedes isn't supposed to be for everybody, it's supposed to be aspirational."

Meanwhile, Lawner's campaign for Volkswagen certainly doesn't seem to be for anybody but the MTV demo. Yet Lawner sees the campaign as having a kinship with VW's classic ad era. "In the old work, VW stood for something-it was a statement of individuality," he says. "And that's how we're trying to position the brand with this campaign." While Grace notes that it's an improvement over Fahrvergnugen, Garfinkel opines: "Their attempts to make Volkswagen contemporary seem a little forced."

Doig, meanwhile, sees VW's emphasis on executional style and attitude as being typical of what's wrong with the import category as a whole right now. "I'm so sick of attitudinal spots that are overloaded with filmic technique," he says. "Whatever became of old-fashioned singularity, the balls of the simple idea well-told?"

The answer may well be that the imports simply got too big for simplicity. Garfinkel believes it was inevitable that "as a lot of the import cars go mainstream, their advertising would begin to look more and more like American car advertising." And while most see that as depressing, there is a bright side, says Mullen's Silverman. "The ads are becoming more animated, more fun," he says, "and I happen to think that's a good thing." Perhaps consumers agree. Sales for all the European import brands discussed here were up last year, according to Automotive News. BMW was up almost 10 percent from '94 to '95; Mercedes was up roughly 5 percent; Volvo was up 8 percent; and VW a surprising 23 percent. Some of this success probably had more to do with rising costs of Japanese luxury models, which have no doubt caused consumers to take another look at the Euros.

Still, Garfinkel thinks the recent work helped sell more Benzes last November than it had sold in any month in the past decade. "This is advertising that's fun to watch," he says. "Even if a car is expensive and has serious engineering,

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