The Truth About Car Advertising
On second thought, look for yourself. Most automobile commercials include a small disclaimer like “closed course,” “professional driver,” “do not attempt” or some other CYA statement mandated by the company’s legal department. It’s there to protect them against ambulance chasers waiting for a buyer to injure themselves or (preferably) die when they try to make their vehicle do what it did in the commercial– even if that’s just driving around a corner. You have to wonder about a world where companies showcase an SUV driving off-road, or a sports car zooming through a road course, then feel obliged to tell the buyer “do not attempt” to do the same. Just what are we supposed to do with these vehicles?
The TV commercials for the new Mercedes GL-class are probably the best/worst example. The ads show the Alabama-built off-roader shrugging off the impact of a crash test sled, towing more than a Peterbilt can handle, hauling an entire vacation home full of stuff and tackling a slalom course so fast it sets the cones on fire (actually my first impression was the brakes were overheating so badly they ignited the cones). All this wouldn’t be too bad if it was presented Joe Isuzu-style, with humorous disclaimers. Instead, the word “fictionalization” appears in letters small enough to qualify as a DMV eye test, flashing by so fast it could serve as an Evelyn Wood final exam.
Autodisclaimermania reminds of a five-year old who lies about breaking a lamp but thinks it’s OK (and he won’t be caught) because his fingers were crossed. When it comes to portraying extreme performance capabilities that might not actually be, you know, possible, or, equally worrying, destroying the vehicle involved in the display, truck ads are particularly notable offenders. Could someone explain what “underbody digitally modified” meant in the Ford truck ad showing an F-150 crushed between two bulldozers? Did the frame crumple like a beer can against a frat boy’s forehead? Why won’t they show us what really happened? Or tell us they actually crushed four trucks to make that commercial?
Then there’s a special category of ads operating so far outside the realm of reality they should be classified as novelization. These ads try to sell us on a vehicle’s ability to cater to/create a particular “lifestyle,” or seek to fill us with warm fuzzies (WF) for a company building vehicles that can’t stand evaluation on their own or relative merits. Here’s a simple question: how many Americans actually own a kayak? How many go rock climbing? Not as many as own SUV’s. But that doesn’t stop their manufacturers from selling their lumbering land yachts as gateways to the great outdoors. Nissan may urge potential owners to “tell better stories,” but it would be hard come up with more imaginative fiction that their lifestyle vignettes.
The poster child for the WF concept is Ford’s “Bold Moves” campaign. The Coca-Cola style ads show a quick cut montage of bold Americans doing courageous and noble things– from a teenager getting his first driver's license to a woman with breast cancer entering the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure. So… where are the cars? They don’t appear until the ad’s closing seconds. What does that tell us about Ford vehicles? Either a great deal (Ford’s ethics, spirit and community service) or nothing (), depending on whether or not you got paid to throw around words like “target demographic.”
Of course, Ford’s not the only one inviting customers to share their highly selective alternate reality. Toyota touts their “hybrid synergy” but neglects to mention its profitable flotilla of gas-guzzling Tundras and Sequoias. GM brags how many of its cars get better than 30 MPG in highway driving, but fails to disclose that their whips are a lot less efficient around town, and that their overall fleet hews closely to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy legislation. (Unlike BMW.)
You have to wonder who the car makers and their advertising lackeys think they’re fooling. They aren’t fooling me and I doubt they’re fooling you. The truth is they, like Joe Isuzu, they are only fooling themselves. And if I’m lying, may lightning strike my computer.
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