Garfield's Ad Review: Saturn drivers more like zeros than heroes in new campaign

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Putting aside for a moment General Motors' last five years of bizarrely passive-aggressive behavior regarding the Saturn brand, and its gratuitous humiliation of Hal Riney-the man who allowed Saturn to transcend its surpassing automotive mediocrity-there's a problem with the new advertising.

It's terrible.

The first post-Riney spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, shows a shopper in a Saturn showroom, at the wheel, in conversation with the hovering sales guy.

Customer: "This Saturn SL1 is a great-lookin' car."

Salesman: "Yeah, it's only $199 due, $199 a month to lease it."

Customer: "I bet the ladies are gonna love me in this thing, right?"

Salesman: "Not necessarily, OK? People overestimate how much a woman cares about a man's car. It's all about what you got goin' on in there, [pointing toward the guy's heart] and in there [pointing to his head]."

Customer: `"Cause I was just coming in here to get a car, you know?"

Salesman: "Got a little less than you'd like, didn't you?"

Customer: "Thank you."

Voice-over: "The Saturn spring sales event. Ends June 30."

Oh, it's kind of funny. The customer is an A #1 dork, and the salesman hits just the right combination of comedy and sincerity with his surprising display of candor. But "funny" and "surprising" don't necessarily translate to "good." The tagline is "Maybe a Little Too Honest," which, in some respects, this ad certainly is.

The sad fact is that a Saturn automobile is a brown shoe on wheels. It has the performance profile of an anvil and the sex appeal of yeast. These may be points of differentiation in today's car market-in which even the likes of Hyundai offer some exciting products-but not the sort of differentiation Saturn should be dwelling on. There is no percentage in portraying your customers as simpering losers in a Dudmobile.

Riney's genius was to turn the Saturn brand into a community of utilitarian souls who proudly wore their plodding not-quite-Nissans as badges of inconspicuous consumption. He turned mediocrity into a brand benefit by focusing on the iconoclastic new corporation wholly in sync with the target buyers' Kumbaya mentality. It was a bravely different company selling to a bravely unsuperficial audience and everybody involved was a hero.

So long heroes. Hello zeros.

The second problem with Goodby's first spot is that, behind the veneer of disarming truthfulness, lurks a central dishonesty. Who says women don't care about men's cars? We'd wager there's no data to back that up. It sounds more like wishful thinking, born of desperation, than revealed truth. And disarming candor doesn't work unless it's actually, you know, candid.

Now we say this with some hesitation-not only because this is evidently an interim promotional spot, vs. a strategic brand campaign. There's also the fact that years ago we failed to recognize the genius of Riney's self-effacing approach, which we awarded a mere 2 1/2 stars when it should have rated 4. So we reserve the right, when the brand campaign emerges, to re-evaluate.

We are not optimistic, however. This maiden voyage may or may not be a little too honest. But it is certainly a little too stupid.

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