By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. As someone who has served time in the trenches creating advertising campaigns for car companies, I can safely say it is consistently one of the most difficult pursuits in the advertising profession. Why is that, you might wonder? Shouldn’t it be pure joy wrapped in euphoria, day in, day out? Shooting hot cars on majestic roads and then turning it into wonderfulness on screen? Uh, hardly, in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Make no mistake, ad agencies absolutely love the money involved with having a big-ticket car account, but the “up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” (thanks, Cameron Crowe) that’s part and parcel of working on a car account takes its toll. It’s no wonder that within the advertising profession “working on a car account” doesn’t necessarily translate into being a prestigious gig when compared to the other types of account avenues out there; in fact it is often looked down upon. And there are some very good reasons for that.
Now, before I get into the “why?” of it all yes, of course, there are more than a few examples of excellent, even outstanding advertising on behalf of car companies being created and executed right now. But unfortunately these ads are the exceptions, meaning that brilliant work manages to slip through now and again despite all of the built-in obstacles thrown up by the client. Sad to say, the majority of the ads in this genre are dismal and eminently forgettable, if not downright offensive.
So, here are a few points as to why the automotive advertising arena is so disappointing for the most part.
1. Automobile companies are risk averse, especially when it comes to their image. Yeah, I know, there’s a shocker. Automotive companies are the last bastions of the quintessential “running scared” corporate mentality. Car companies are afraid of every doomsday scenario, every possible shift in the political winds, every litigious threat both real and imagined, basically they’re afraid of absolutely everything. And of course they bring that mentality to bear to each and every advertising/marketing meeting.
2. Automobile companies are teeming metropolises within CoverYourAssLand. Yes, this isn’t exactly news, either. For every touchy-feely pronouncement about the “enlightened” workplace and that business is usual isn’t business as usual, make no mistake it very much is business as usual. What is the first order of business on any given day of every mid- and upper-management executive at a car company? That’s easy, it’s making sure their boss looks good and it’s making sure their ass is covered no matter what the looming scenario, because the very last thing they want to have happen is to be caught up in the collateral damage when things go wrong. This doesn’t exactly lend to a proper mindset when considering creative work that projects an image for the company, now does it? In fact it sets up such a dismal playing field that as I said previously it’s a miracle that any good work gets through this gauntlet of abject mediocrity.
3. Speaking of abject mediocrity, too often marketers at the car companies aren’t marketing professionals at all. What, or more accurately, WTF? Yes, the sad truth for many car companies is that (allegedly) up-and-coming executives are assigned to the marketing function to be “seasoned” as part of the broadening of their experience within the company. I’ve sat in countless meetings where the cumulative experience of the executive in the room making calls on multi-million-dollar advertising amounts to a big fat zero. In fact one executive back in the day who was new to his assignment had the temerity to say to me before I presented crucial new creative, “I know what good advertising is. I watch TV.” That’s a true, unembellished story. WTF indeed.
4. Too many cooks lead to bad, lowest-common-denominator advertising. One of the most, if not the most, egregious behaviors that is rampant when it comes to automotive advertising and marketing is that these companies allow too many singularly unqualified people to weigh-in on creative work they wouldn’t understand even if you took the time to slow-walk them through it. When you have an executive who is allegedly in charge of the advertising who is unqualified, and then he or she invites more unqualified people to weigh-in at a pivotal go/no-go advertising meeting, chaos ensues, bad decisions or non-decisions are made, and inevitably the result is lowest-common-denominator advertising that's instantly forgettable and appeals to no one.
5. The best advertising is inevitably the result of a much smaller core group of people within a company who have meaningful marketing and advertising experience and who understand what they’re doing on a fundamental level. And this is an essential point: these executives also succeed when they have the full support of the top management of the company and are not meddled with. This is an almost unfathomable scenario, but the top management that understands that marketing may not be their strongest suit and allows – and even more important trusts - the people charged with the function to do their jobs ultimately gets the best image work on behalf of the company. But the reason this is a Unicorn Scenario is that top management is usually a cesspool of ego maniacal intransigence, and they hate being told to stand down and let the experts do what they do. They just feel compelled to put their fingerprints on the creative work, not for the good of the work but just because they can, which inevitably affects the work in a negative direction.
As I said at the beginning of this column, the advertising profession is tough enough, but automotive advertising is fraught with peril and disappointment at every turn. Upper management executives at car companies rarely get it, because the typical automotive mindset is so far removed from understanding the fundamentals of image wrangling that it is almost cruel to expect them to be able to contribute in a meaningful way. That’s not an excuse; instead it’s a sad commentary on the excruciating and fundamentally flawed process that the ad agencies have to endure in order to see outstanding work through to completion.
I estimate that only ten percent of the excellent, on-target work presented by ad agencies actually makes it to the TV screen, and that might be a generous number. The rest of the creative work is dumbed-down or simply dismissed for a variety of reasons such as, “It’s too out there for our brand.” (Translation: We don’t understand it and it makes us really uncomfortable; therefore, no.”) “We don’t think it accurately reflects our brand.” (Translation? We don’t have a shred of a clue as to what our brand actually stands for but we know that’s not it.”) “Let’s run it by the dealer council to get their reaction.” (Translation? We don’t want to throw the agency under the bus because, after all, they’ve worked intensely on this for three months, but we don’t get it - or like it - so let’s let the dealer council take the blame for killing it.”)
When you have ill-equipped people making marketing and advertising decisions, the above is what you get. When you begin from a cesspool of incompetence and fundamental decisions are based on abject fear of what could go wrong, it’s pretty damn difficult to rise above the relentless mediocrity and get outstanding work to the screen. Again, it’s a sad commentary but it’s truer now than it has ever been in this business, which is just flat-out pathetic.
I shake my head over what passes for “good” automotive advertising these days, because in reality it’s mostly dreadful and forgettable stuff. But yet, I am occasionally lifted up by high-concept advertising that delivers everything that’s promised, and more. Take the new – and brilliant – reimagination of the Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s brand.
That’s simply how it’s done when it comes to repositioning a brand in the market. Would it kill the typical auto executive assigned to the marketing function to immerse him- or herself in this spot and to grasp what’s really going on here? Yes, probably, because it requires too much imagination and too much of a leap of faith out of their traditional comfort zone and they can’t possibly imagine “going there.” In other words, it’s too damn scary.
Scary good, in fact.
The most time-honored adage in advertising is that “clients inevitably get the advertising they deserve.” And I am reminded of this every time I see another shitty car ad oozing mediocrity from the screen or on the Internet that pegs my personal Wince Meter.
I can assure you that the car company in question got exactly what they deserved.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.