A brutal question: When was the last time national advertising for automobiles caused you to take any positive action other than stifling a yawn? Or scratching your head?
I’ll be kind and use a euphemism: Most automobile “catch lines” are…execrable.
I blame the decline of sales-worthy vehicular rhetoric on the current buzzword: brand.
Every couple of years a new term for a venerable concept bubbles to the surface, bobs there for a while, then quietly sinks. Remember when that term was integrated advertising (for most advertising agencies, one of the great lies of our time)? Then we had the database era. Now it’s brand.
Everything is brand. Martha Stewart isn’t a person, she’s a brand. (Others think she may be an android.) Tiger Woods isn’t a golfer, he’s a brand. Some publications tell us they aren’t magazines; they’re brands. Fair enough. While reading this brand, ponder: Does brand recognition have any value if it doesn’t produce enthusiastic buyers?
Selling be damned, the latter-day sinners of automotive autoeroticism declaim. We want to be known as a brand and we’ll spend millions establishing brand identity. If you build it, they will come.
Fellas, do you really want to do that? Remember the Edsel. Remember the Allante, which nobody knew how to pronounce, and the Cimarron. For that matter, look at Isuzu. On second thought, no, don’t.
Mazda, which brought out its 1999 model almost in time to celebrate 1998 New Year’s Day, has this slogan: “The all-new 1999 Mazda Miata. It’s waiting.” So are we. When does the selling season begin? But what the hell, it’s only June 1998, and the year 2000 models probably will be out next month. Oh, I forgot the tag line: “Get in. Be moved.” They got that one direct from the New York subway.
Mazda doesn’t have to worry about ridicule as long as Cadillac defies the Angel of Death with “Catera-the Caddy that zigs.” I look back at the days when I owned a Cadillac, before Cimarron and Allante. It was considered a luxury car then, and it zoomed comfortably without zigging aimlessly. What puzzles me isn’t that some brand-fanatic of the “That which is different = that which is good” cult proposed this image-damaging campaign, it’s that the automaker accepted it and the dealers didn’t hire a hit man.
Let’s not forget Nissan, with its peculiar “Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride.” Yeah, but what about the car? Dealers didn’t enjoy the ride. They ultimately raised the roof about this campaign, but not until Nissan’s sales fell nearly 30%. Like roller-coaster addicts, apparently the brand-aware and marketing-unaware creative team enjoys the ride downward.
Infiniti has finally abandoned those insufferable, snotty Jonathan Pryce commercials. And what is the substitute? Peggy Lee’s old song, “You Give Me Fever”-which, in an automotive ambiance, suggests the air conditioning isn’t working. The tag line is “Own one and you’ll understand.” Yeah, right on.
The Mysterious East: Mitsubishi (I wonder how many Mitsubishi owners can spell the company’s name?) came up with “Spirited products for spirited people.” Oh. And Honda has “An Accord like no other.” Hey, Honda, nobody else is making Accords. You’re welcome.
Toyota refuses to be left out of the Vague Cloud Club: “Toyota. Everyday.” I guess Toyota doesn’t have a dictionary, which defines “everyday” as “ordinary.” Or are they proud of that? Don’t wake them up by pointing out the difference between “everyday” and “every day.” Hupmobile, where are you now that we need you?
Mercury’s theme is “Imagine yourself in a Mercury.” What a two-edged sword that one is! I’m old enough to remember the Mercury Comet, and imagining myself back in that thing …well, that would make both the ad-writer and me masochists.
Mercedes-Benz reaches back, back, back into history with Marlene Dietrich, or a Dietrich foghorn sound-alike, burbling through an off-key “Falling in Love Again.” The commercial ends with the all-too-revealing line, “I can’t help it.” Yeah, we figured that out.
Historically, automobile advertising has been a chimera ever since form overtook substance as the rationale behind advertising. We’ve seen that idiotic “Fahrfegneugen” campaign for Volkswagen. We’ve seen “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile,” which suggests you’re driving a stolen car. What we haven’t seen is a serious attempt to show and tell us what the benefits of a car might be.
(Jeep, I apologize and exclude you from damnation: Your advertising is old-fashioned brilliant, actually tying into reasons to buy.)
Let’s relate these television campaigns, every one of which runs into eight or nine figures, to what direct marketers regard as the reason for a sponsored message. I’ll repeat our catechism:
The purpose of a direct response message is to convince the reader, viewer or listener to perform a positive act as the direct result of exposure to that message.
Our messages, generally, are just as sensible and logical when spoken as they are in print. If a prospective customer showed up at our premises and asked for a reason to buy, we wouldn’t be in trouble if we recited the wording from one of our sales letters.
Can you visualize a potential buyer asking a car salesman, “Why should I buy this car?” and having the salesman break out in an off-key rendition of “Falling in Love Again” or “You Give Me Fever”?
Well, I’ve figured it out, courtesy of Webster’s. Two of the definitions of brand: a mark burned into the flesh of criminals; and a mark of disgrace or notoriety, a stigma.
OK, carmakers. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.