An imposing, expensive log home dominates a clearing, reclaimed from the rugged pine-infested wilderness that surrounds it. Smoke rises from the chimney, overlaying the picturesque mountain peak in the background. In front of the home, a man leans over the open engine bay of his obviously new truck. The chrome gleams, despite the trail mud artistically bespattered on the sides. As the camera zooms in, he looks up from the engine bay and smiles. His tousled hair, unshaven stubble, and harmonious blend of over-25-under-40 facial features comport well alongside his worn cowboy boots, perfectly soiled jeans and carefully rumpled flannel shirt. He wipes his hands with a rag, looks back at the house for just a moment, and then turns to the camera.
“Built it myself,” he says with a polished gruffness. “But I couldn’t have done it without the right tools for the job. Saws, hammers, nails, and varnish. And a truck I can depend on.” He reaches over and closes the hood with a “thunk” that took the sound editing guy three weeks to get right. “Brand X is as reliable as the day is long. But what I like the most is that I can do all the regular maintenance myself. Oil changes, fluid flushes, and anything else she needs. It’s easy. Everything comes in a handy guide. No experience necessary. Brand X builds a truck for you, not for mechanics.”
At that moment, the screen door on the porch swings open. A well-groomed Labrador Retriever rushes out with a happy bark, his collar jingling. As he runs towards his master, an achingly beautiful brunette steps out onto the porch. Her hair falls down over her slightly unbuttoned blouse as she smiles at the man in the courtyard. He turns to face her and gives a casual wave, just as the dog reaches his feet. She returns the wave, as he pets the dog with his free hand. She leans against a porch column as he turns back to the camera, the dog now sitting alongside him. Now he wears a knowing smirk on his face. “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.” The challenge made, he turns back and heads towards the front door. The camera zooms out, and cuts away to the mountains as he reaches the porch and embraces the girl. The logo for Brand X looms onto the screen. An announcer calls out the tagline. “Brand X. Independence is everything.”
“Don’t provoke your customers.” The maxim seems simple enough. So is the script above a form of marketing suicide? Not necessarily. Megadoses of brash masculinity in contemporary truck ads are a given. Especially with the collapse of the small and mid-size truck markets, portraying the heavy-duty macho pedigree of pick-ups is essential. Nobody wants to build the next Brat. Instead, deep-voiced announcers harangue viewers with statistics and brawny narratives. The question becomes one of oversaturation. How many images of trucks towing impressive-looking gooseneck setups/ginormous almost-yachts/inferior trucks, trucks getting huge loads of bricks/rocks/other bulky substances dumped in the bed from ridiculous heights, and trucks pulling overloaded trailers up a Mad Max-ish winding tower of death surrounded by OMG FLAMES SO HARDCORE can the average guy absorb before the effect starts to wear thin?
Perhaps we already have the answer: pulling a freaking space shuttle into a hangar in a supposedly “real world” challenge without the slightest hint of irony or self-effacement (“It’s really heavy, and it’s also quite big.” Bob the Builder would be proud.) Or maybe it peaked even earlier: parking a perfectly good pickup between two bulldozers and bending the hell out of it just to prove that yes, it is hard to crush something made of metal that weighs the better part of three tons. (It’s worth noting that Ford pulled that ad after negative consumer reaction.) Every manufacturer is guilty of this to some degree; the struggle for breathless superlatives and ludicrous stunts is an arms race that not even Kissinger could de-escalate. What’s more of an insult to a customer: the insinuation that these shenanigans somehow represent real-world product value, or that maybe, just maybe, taking responsibility for your own vehicle maintenance is sexy?
The cartoonish over sincerity of truck advertising is ripe to be skewered. At least one ad exec working for GM has realized this. A memorable 2012 Super Bowl ad for Chevy trucks riffed cheekily on the Mayan Apocalypse as well as manly vigor in the face of chaos. The ad works because it gets the message across (GM builds the most reliable pickups) without resorting to overwrought machismo or torrents of forgettable facts and figures. Recently, brands in other product categories have gotten far by giving masculinity the ironic, playful treatment.
The line of Axe grooming products comes most readily to mind, as do the over-the-top ads for Dr. Pepper 10. Going farther back in automotive history, there are numerous examples where manufacturers achieved enormous success by attacking the marketing tropes of the day. The most iconic of these was the Doyle Dane Bernbach series of Volkswagen ads that appeared in 1959. “Think Small” exploded decades of conventional wisdom about what Americans expected from an automotive ad campaign. The enormous success of VW in swimming upstream changed not only that company’s fortunes, but arguably the entire character of the US car market.
The DIY aesthetic has long been a favorite background for truck ads. Since at least the 1980s, though, manufacturers have been hesitant to apply it to the trucks themselves. Perhaps this is due to the need to maintain good relations with dealers, who rely on service for a steady income stream. More likely, it rests on the presumption that modern drivers want nothing to do with the mechanical upkeep of their vehicles of they can help it. It wasn’t always this way; ads from the 1970s and before are replete with references to the ease of do-it-yourself maintenance for both cars and trucks alike. Resurrecting self-maintenance would be a quick and easy way for a manufacturer to stake out a unique niche in the marketing game.
Because many truck buyers are commercial customers who are already more likely to self-maintain, the strategy carries less risk than if it were applied to passenger cars. It could help a marginal player like Nissan establish a reputation as a “man’s truck,” owned by the confident and technically savvy. This is the most crucial part of the game: the creation of an image that customers will want to buy into, not necessarily one they live themselves. Very few smokers of Marlboro Reds are lasso-wielding cowboys. But the image offered by that campaign proved to be an immensely powerful draw. It isn’t necessary to throw out all conventional wisdom at once, like DDB did for VW. However, the existing stale and hyper-masculine paradigm of truck ads is ripe to be shaken up, one way or another.