By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I often make light of the fact that the business of automotive marketing and advertising is the business of selling “air.” Except, I’m sorry to say, that it isn’t really all that funny, unfortunately.
This business at times reminds me of the “Chance the Gardener” character played by Peter Sellers in the film classic “Being There” who, while riding in a car for the first time after leading a sheltered, isolated existence as a gardener, says, “This is just like television, only you can see much further.”
The business of automotive marketing is one of the strangest pursuits on earth. Billions of dollars and countless people hours are spent in an endeavor that vaguely resembles a never-ending episode of the Twilight Zone.
When I refer to selling “air” I am referring to the vacuum of nothingness that permeates the business of marketing automobiles. When everything is mostly the same and when a perceived difference is trumped up to be something more than it actually is and intros have nothing to do with actual arrivals, that’s not only blowing smoke, it’s creating the smoke to begin with.
When, in order to sell air, you have to create something out of ahem, thin air, it’s no wonder that it all goes so horribly wrong. But in automotive marketing, nothingness and in turn air selling, is a premium endeavor that soaks up the aforementioned billions upon billions of dollars.
Companies and their ad agencies go to great lengths to sell air. They research it, talk about it endlessly, deploy swarms of operatives to develop it, muster massive advertising budgets to justify it, socialize it, and in the end, arrive at a meaningless point to assess, decipher and begin the dance all over again. Make no mistake, the selling of “air” – aka the pursuit of nothingness - is simply incredible to behold. And nowhere will that be more on display than at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show.
Kris Kristofferson once said in his signature song “Me & Bobby McGee” that “Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose,
And nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free…”
And for the automakers vying for attention out in L.A. this week, the selling of air will be taken to new heights because after all, they have nothing left to lose and besides, it’s free as some of the card-carrying lesser lights in the automotive journalism community will stumble all over themselves to project the nothingness for them. After all, it beats working for a living.
Working alphabetically (I will get to Alfa Romeo in a moment), it’s hard not to start with the Crown Prince of Air Selling, one Sergio Marchionne. The esteemed graduate of Unctuous Prick University and the industry’s chief practitioner of smoke-and-mirrors marketing is promising a sizzling announcement on Wednesday as he presents a new Fiat Spider utilizing the underpinnings of the recently introduced Mazda MX-5 Miata. Expect the assembled auto scribes to fall all over themselves as they tout the new Spider, calling it, as you might imagine, “The Second Coming of Fun” or something witty like that.
One thing that you won’t hear the scribes say is that the Fiat Spider will be the most irrelevant and insignificant car at the show. Why is that, exactly? Well, let’s review, shall we? The ugly reality for FCA is that Fiat as a brand is dead in the water in this country. The 500L, despite the Pope riding around in one, is literally unsellable at this juncture. And the little 500 is piling up like cord wood on Fiat lots all over the country. Not to mention the fact that the 500X, which was positioned as the new savior for the brand, is treading water in FCA showrooms and cannibalizing the other two offerings.
So the Great Sergio’s plan to invigorate this cataclysmic monument to mediocrity masquerading as a viable brand is to come up with yet another niche sports car that won’t make a damn bit of difference in the grand scheme of things? Not to mention an intro timetable that’s T.B.D.? You just can’t make this stuff up, folks.
But His Airness isn’t going to stop there, oh no, because Marchionne is also going to show a particularly galling piece of vaporware called the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, a blatant ripoff of the BMW M3 Sedan that promises 505HP from a Twin-Turbo V6. Except the car isn’t even close to seeing the light of day. If it sees production at all – and that is a huge “if” when the subject of Alfa Romeo is concerned - we might see one here in the U.S. sometime in 2017. Let me repeat that, sometime in 2017.
Do I expect the coverage of both of these glittery pieces of vaporware to be extensive? Yes, of course, because it’s easier for the auto “journos” to dutifully conduct rote reporting rather than to take a step back and say, “WTF? Are you kidding me with this crap?”
But rest assured, I will.
Air selling at the L.A. Auto Show won’t be confined to Marchionne and his espresso-swilling minions, because after all the business of marketing air is always a super-heated endeavor, and automakers just can’t help themselves when it comes to overpromising and, when no one is looking down the road, underdelivering and saying “oh, we’re sorry, we missed our targets” or the ever-convenient, “never mind and move it along, there’s nothing to see here.”
Buick will show a new LaCrosse sedan in L.A., which is supposed to have design overtones of the highly overrated Avenir concept unveiled in Detroit not quite a year ago. Whether or not it will somehow justify the new, “Experience the New Buick” campaign is another matter all together, but suffice to say that new campaign is yet another glowing chapter in the annals of selling air. Talk about the pursuit of nothingness.
And not to be outdone, Cadillac will show its new XT5 in L.A., the replacement for the massively tired SRX crossover. This is a big hairy deal for the Cadillac air sellers, and just to make sure everyone understands that fact this will be the third time they’re showing this car in a month. Because well, you know, they just want to make sure that everyone sits up and takes notice. Let’s be clear, this car won’t see the light of day on dealer lots until May or June of next year, but when you’re selling air, it’s all part of the master plan.
There will be plenty more air selling going on in L.A. as manufacturers (Kia, Infiniti, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and the other usual suspects) line up to say “Love us!” (as they mutter under their breath, “but don’t look too close as we’re not really finished with it yet and we’re not really sure what, well, you know, what we’re doing, but...”) Yes, we know indeed.
I can’t close this week’s column out without special mention of the new Range Rover Evoque Convertible, which will be displayed out in L.A.
Land Rover PR minions suggest that it "combines the bold design and refinement of the Range Rover Evoque with a sophisticated folding roof to create a versatile, all-season convertible SUV." And of course Land Rover strongly believes the new Evoque Convertible is going to be a worthy new entry in the market, at around $50,000.
I, on the other hand, believe it's our early contender for the "Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking."
And yet another shining example of major league air selling.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Check out the latest episode of The Autoextremist on AutoextremistTV below. -WG