Editor's Note (9/28): Since there was so much juicy content in Peter's "Autoextremist Advertising Report Card" column, we have decided to run it again this week. He has added updates, including for Honda and Jeep. Peter also comments in this week's "On The Table" about the burgeoning hand-wringing surrounding auto shows, as the manufacturers scramble for effectiveness in the chaos that defines the contemporary consumer engagement environment. Peter also comments on what F1 needs in "Bring Back The Scream," yet another memorable "Fumes" column that has roiled the motorsports industry. And we also have updates from the racing world in "The Line" this week. -WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Every June, we unveil our Autoextremist Brand Image Meter rankings, and it has become an annual Sturm und Drang-fest that sees marketers across the industry cringe with anticipation as they await their fate. Today, since this is the beginning of the fall season, we thought it would be appropriate to hand out report cards on the current state of automotive advertising.
Note I didn’t say “awards,” because this won’t be a vacuous auto marketing schmoozefest about nothing, like the event orchestrated by a certain trade publication that took place in New York this week. You know, the marketing “event” that was hyped within an inch of its life that produced marketers with the remarkable propensity to state the obvious while managing to say nothing of consequence in the least. Or, as we like to call it: A giant waste of time.
It won’t be that, I can assure you.
No, today is about bringing the High-Octane Truth to bear on a game near and dear to our hearts, aka the advertising biz, where perceptions and images are manipulated in order to create desire. At times this pursuit can ascend to high art, and at others, well, it can sink to a level of lowest-common-denominator bullshit that is outright offensive.
As I commented in last week’s column, “Brand Wranglers Run Amuck,” despite the onslaught of social media engagement the fundamentals of the advertising business haven’t changed one bit, because it’s up to the agency (in whatever form that takes) to come up with a compelling piece of communication that presents and projects the client’s product in the best possible light.
Add to this the fact that the client/ad agency relationship is fraught with peril and provides a constant thrum to the proceedings - a contentious soundtrack that makes things interesting to say the least – and it’s a wonder anything actually gets done. In this combative environment a marketing strategy emerges, advertising is created to that given strategy, and what you see on the air is the culmination of countless meetings, relentless work, endless hand-wringing and a teeming cottage industry of second-guessing.
In today’s advertising world, experiential events and social media engagements with customers or potential customers are driving everything, but make no mistake, the biggest marketing arena for these auto companies here in the U.S. is the NFL, and sooner or later they will all be present and accounted for on that platform. That’s what I’ll be referencing today.
And no, you won’t see comments on Aston Martin, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, Maserati, McLaren, Rolls-Royce, etc. Those brands exist in a rarefied atmosphere, so much so that it’s an entirely different dimension of lust and desire, and besides, at those volumes, traditional advertising is irrelevant. And I’m not going to cover all of the automotive brands today, because some of the work either isn’t worth mentioning, or it’s just too tedious for words.
And we won’t be dispensing letter grades today - instead, I’ll just call ‘em as I see ‘em and we’ll let the cards fall where they may. And one more thing, as I said last June, I have never seen such a painful disconnect between the auto companies - who are actually making some terrific products at the moment - and their stumblebum marketing troops who consistently fail at coming up with a fundamental raison d'être for those products. Cogent, focused thought seems to be in painfully short supply at this juncture in the automotive marketing and advertising arena, and I will gleefully point that out over the rest of this column.
Acura: Rather than cover the commercials for the NSX, which were semi-interesting albeit predictable, I’d like to talk about the brand’s latest work for the MDX called "Wake," which uses music from Beck to great effect. More visually arresting than Acura spots in the past – I could do without the “wow” appearing in the sky, however, ugh – I view this work as a resurgence for a brand that is in desperate need of it.
Audi: This brand has been on an undeniable roll and it looks like the fallout from the VW Group diesel fiasco will be minimal. But it should be noted that the overlords at Audi North America take themselves oh so seriously. Scott Keogh & Co. favor big, grandiose and overblown spots that appear to be made at times more for their own edification than for potential customers. The latest in that genre is a spot featuring the Audi A8 and a co-branding experiential initiative with Airbnb called “Desolation." Taken as a brand image spot, it certainly hits all the buttons as Keogh & Co. perceive them to be. But whether or not anyone ultimately gives a shit beyond that remains to be seen. Grade? Good. And Not Good at the same time.
BMW: For a car company that’s constantly battling its own demons as to what it wants to be when it finally grows up, BMW marketers wrestle with the “BMW in every garage syndrome” on the one hand (pushed by the profit-driven overlords in Germany), and “The Ultimate Driving Machine” on the other, the long-standing U.S. ad theme that still resonates deeply, as long as the BMW in question delivers on that promise. BMW marketers seem to reel off spots that err to the “garage” syndrome far too often, and then every once in a while they unleash a driving-oriented spot that keeps us all interested for another six months. As long as they keep doing the latter, I’ll choose to ignore the rest of the tedium that seems to bog them down in crossover Hell.
Buick: The Super Bowl spot for the Cascada was dreadful, an exercise in money burning and stargazing that left a bad aftertaste that still lingers. The most recent spot, featuring the remote link app, is mildly amusing – let’s not get carried away, I said mildly – but since they’re running it into the ground lately it has completely lost the shred of charm it had going for it. Oh yes, and the insipid theme music that Buick marketers have stuck with is more annoying now than ever. This just in: The words “annoying” and “advertising” never go together well.
Cadillac: As I’ve said repeatedly, the most recent being in my column “Same As It Ever Was” Cadillac has been running down the wrong advertising road for eighteen months now. Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s chief marketing executive, has declared that aiming marketing at anyone falling outside the millennial demographic is a massive waste of time and money, because the millennials are the future foundation of the brand, and every other demographic is officially expendable and inconsequential from this point forward. Marketing roadkill, as it were. But Cadillac’s “marketing–to-Millennials” ad campaign is misguided, at best, and an abject embarrassment if you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty of it. The CT6 is, by all accounts, a nicely executed piece, but you’d never know it because the advertising is doing absolutely nothing for the brand, and the goodness of the car is buried in the dismal cadence of a homily to people who don’t have a clue as to what Cadillac is, and couldn’t be bothered to care, either. It’s funny, but a strong-willed GM CMO who had final say in all of the GM divisions’ marketing initiatives could and would put a stop to this nonsense. Too bad nobody at GM has a clue as to why that might be a very good thing. Put in Cadillac House terms, Cadillac advertising comes across as an iced soy latte with a triple shot of mediocrity.
Chevrolet: I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think the mainstream Chevrolet advertising campaign featuring focus groups is some of the worst advertising to come along in this business in a long, long time. The work comes off as amateurish and offensive, and does absolutely nothing for what should be one of this country’s most iconic automotive brands. And it seems that Chevrolet marketing overlords are comfortable in this space, which is just sad and pathetic. They also like to point out that this dreck is moving the needle, but where that needle is being moved to is nowhere good. Chevrolet has had a long history of iconic advertising campaigns, but this isn’t one of them. It’s clear that with GM’s – meaning Queen Mary and Dan I Am Ammann - continued belief that they have no need for a CMO, the next great Chevrolet ad campaign will be in a perpetual state of MIA.
Chrysler: As I said in June Jim Gaffigan is a very likable and funny guy, but he is utterly wasted in Fiat-Chrysler’s ad campaign for its Pacifica minivan. The advertising is tedious and forced, it creates no urgency, and any positive takeaways are for Gaffigan, not the product. Sometimes it’s not even worth asking why. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and move on. Like right now.
Dodge: Muscle cars, cop cars, smoky burnouts, Hellcats and more smoky burnouts - it’s all a blur after awhile. Dodge knows its place and is going to beat that drum indefinitely. Does it resonate beyond a select group of enthusiasts? No. But I’m fine with it, and so are the brainiacs out in Auburn Hills, apparently.
Fiat: In the latest work for the Fiat 124 Spider, FCA goes to the boner pill scenario in one spot (one too many, considering they did for the Fiat 500 Abarth as well) and it’s like watching paint dry. In fact anyone who has been only mildly paying attention could have story boarded that spot in their sleep. The other spot for the 124, “Free Like A Bird” with music by Wyclef Jean is much better. Does it matter in the grand scheme of things? No. Fiat is teetering on the edge of being inconsequential. And there’s not a damn bit that Sergio can do about it.
Ford. Great advertising for the F-150 pickup, still the best stuff in the business, in fact. And some interesting individual spots for Ford cars, but it’s time for an overarching brand campaign for Ford.
Genesis. I pretty much hammered the premise of the Genesis – the new luxury brand from Hyundai – in last week’s column. And now that I’ve seen the full array of commercials for the G80 and G90, my thoughts haven’t changed in the least; in fact it’s even more of a blown opportunity than I originally thought. When I hear the female voiceover say, “In a world scrambling to put itself first, we believe respect is a breath of fresh luxury” at the end of the spot, it instantly erases the positive feelings generated by the luscious visuals of the car displayed in the previous 25 seconds. Not Good. Too Bad.
GMC: It’s good to see GMC marketers de-emphasizing one of the most misplaced – and stupid - ad themes in auto advertising, “ We Are Professional Grade” in their latest spot for the 2017 Acadia. Although adding the word “precision” to the mix seems like they’re grasping at straws, when what they really need to do is come up with a new ad theme more in line with the caliber of the products being offered. Until they do that the products will have to stand on their own strengths, because the advertising is lackluster and forgettable.
Honda. After wandering around in the product desert for years, Honda finally seems to have its mojo back. I'm happy to report that it has found its advertising chops again too. The spots here, here and one of my favorites, here are indicative of Honda's attitude, which I applaud. It's good to see Honda getting its swagger back.
Hyundai: With this Korean brand getting feisty and more aggressive, it’s using comparison spots to get its point across. And when done properly, comparison spots can be very effective. The new Hyundai work is being done properly and it’s resonating. Watch Hyundai’s competitors start to hit back, but the Korean brand has definitely got a jump on its competition.
Infiniti: The new spot for the Q60 performance coupe featuring Kit Harrington is excellent. If only for the line “a car should only be measured for one thing, how it makes you feel” because that’s exactly what needs to be said, and what Audi should have said in its R8 spot. Everything else for the Infiniti brand is eminently forgettable, but kudos to Infiniti for getting this one right.
Jaguar: The new Jaguar advertising work, especially for the new F-Pace crossover, is noteworthy in that it has a smug and arrogant tone. But, far from being off-putting, it seems perfectly within context for the brand, which is really hard to pull off. As long as Jaguar marketers can walk that tightrope, it will work just fine.
Jeep: It’s hard to screw up Jeep, and though the latest advertising is certainly serviceable for the brand, nothing stands out as some of the heroic Jeep spots of the past. “Maintenance” advertising is fine, to a point, but Jeep needs a wow spot, and soon. Editor-In-Chief's Note: And, as if on cue, Jeep managed to debut its newest "wow" spot - "Be Free" - for the 2017 Grand Cherokee Summit and Trailhawk on Monday night (9/26). It continues FCA CMO Olivier Francois's penchant for orchestrating Big Impact advertising, striking a much-needed chord of unity for this country at the most contentious time in our history. Using one of Yusuf Islam's (Cat Stevens) tunes, "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out" the spot hits home with the closing line: "What unites us is stronger than what divides us." Kudos to Dentsu-owned McGarryBowen for hitting one out of the park.
Kia: This is a coming brand. It has the products with noteworthy design and technology, and consumers are starting to turn to the brand for good reason. This spot for the new Forte plays off the current talent show craze. Is it groundbreaking? No. But it certainly makes its point in a good way. But I want to see more elevation in Kia advertising, because the cars and SUVs deserve it, and it's not there yet.
Lexus: The luxury-car-as-oasis theme has been done time and time again by automakers for years. This latest spot from Lexus certainly continues the theme. But even though Lexus has returned to that well time and time again, it’s completely within character for the brand. The Lexus “Pursuit Of Perfection” theme perfectly encapsulates the brand, and consumers know exactly what they’re getting with the brand. A little cold, a little uninvolving, with enviable quality and otherworldly service. The performance cars – and the performance car advertising – by Lexus takes on a different tone, but the jury is still out on the company’s quest to be a performance brand too.
Lincoln: The Lincoln advertising has hinged upon Matthew McConaughey for a while now. He has allowed Lincoln to carve out an identity for itself, but I’m afraid that in some respects the brand has hung on to the actor a little too long. In the latest spot for the MKZ, Lincoln’s creative troops are expanding the reach of the campaign with the “It’s Like That” line while using the Dap Kings with Sharon Jones, which is nicely done. Expect McConaughey in the new work for the Continental, but after that hopefully he will step back into more of a brand ambassador role.
Mazda: This brand is so desperate to be taken seriously and to have a bigger slice of the automotive pie that it hurts. To that end, the CX-9 large crossover is a big deal for them. But the spot for the CX-9 is disconcerting at best, because it doesn’t seem like a Mazda commercial at all. In fact, if you removed the Mazda references it could just as easily be a spot for any number of manufacturers. I get it, that’s the point, but Mazda is heading down a long, hard road before it even hopes to start resonating in that space. Good luck.
Mercedes-Benz: Wildly all over the map with products crowding each other in every segment, Mercedes-Benz nonetheless does some strong and effective advertising. This latest spot for the E-Class wagon is case in point. It’s well done and perfectly on point for what the brand stands for.
Mini: The brand that doesn’t seem to fit in any category defies labels at every juncture, thus this year’s Super Bowl spot. Mini has mined its “quirky is cool” mantra since the beginning. Will it continue? Yes. But any delusions of growth for the brand that its overlords have are just that, no matter how much advertising they do.
Nissan: As I said last June this company has slowly but surely become a mainstream force in the U.S. market despite flying almost completely under the radar. It’s definitely not because of the advertising, because Nissan’s advertising presence rivals Chevrolet’s for being abject video tedium.
Porsche: The German profit juggernaut has defied all fears that it will lose its way and exceeded all expectations for success, but it’s certainly not because of the advertising. For the most part Porsche advertising is predictable and expected with a double-shot of “we’ve seen this before.” Does it matter? Probably not.
Ram Trucks: Some of the most memorable automotive advertising in recent history has been done for the Ram Truck brand. Not lately, however.
Subaru: If Ford is doing the best truck advertising in the business right now, the best car advertising is being done on behalf of Subaru. This supercharged brand has remarkable momentum, because its cars are solidly presented and executed, and it knows its audience well. This latest Subaru spot conveys everything that is wonderful about the brand. Truly exceptional, impeccable work.
Toyota: Where to begin about Toyota advertising? It’s all over the map because its product lineup is all over the map. Some of the advertising is good, some of it is better than that, and some of it is resolutely blandtastic, just like the cars. Toyota’s major contribution to the auto advertising genre has been the “Toyotathon” campaigns. Don’t laugh, because those campaigns have done more to cement the Japanese brand into the American fabric than just about anything else.
Volvo: Another car company that’s on an upward trajectory, each new Volvo is distinctive and smartly executed. And so is the advertising. We love this spot for the new S90, because it just nails it. As long as Volvo camps in this space, the momentum for the brand will pick up speed.
VW: It’s no secret that the VW brand is on the ropes in this country. Stupidity, calculated hubris and arrogance – or as I like to refer to it, the Trifecta of Not Good – has decimated the brand. What can VW marketers do? Forget about what has transpired, keep their heads down and keep cranking. This spot gives me hope that there will be life for VW in this country, at least until they can get the all-electric van out.
As I’ve said previously, if this advertising stuff were easy, everyone would have 30 percent market share and the streets in auto centers around the world would be paved with platinum. That’s certainly not the case, however. Great products can’t exist in a vacuum, so if they’re advertised properly good things usually follow. If not, chaos ensues. Lackluster or mediocre advertising can be devastating for a brand; I’ve seen it time and time again. Bad advertising is even worse.
There’s a classic advertising adage that is still true to this day, and that is that clients get the advertising they deserve. For the car companies firing on all cylinders this adage is indeed comforting. For the car companies that have people engaged in the business of advertising who are either ill qualified or maliciously clueless, well, they get what they deserve too.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.