By on June 18, 2006

fordcrush2.jpgRemember Joe Isuzu?  In the late 80’s, the brand’s spokesman was an actor (David Leisure) playing a pathological liar who’d say anything to sell an Isuzu.  He claimed the Trooper could carry “a symphony orchestra” or “hold every book in the Library of Congress.”  The Impulse was “faster than a [catches a speeding bullet in his teeth]… well, you know.”  While Joe’s commercials-– and for that matter, the Isuzu brand– are busy fading from the American automotive landscape, his spirit lives on.  The main difference between Joe and no-Joe car ads: today's disclaimers are smaller.  You have my word on it.   

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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13 Comments on “The Truth About Car Advertising...”

  • avatar

    Perhaps its my memory but didn't Volvo have some adverts in the 80's depicting their cars stacked and or doing other things which are not possible without structural fortification? Then on the other end of the spectrum you've got that film by SAAB's where actual test drivers collide head on in a pair of 9000's after completing slalom.

  • avatar

    Yowza I scragged my spelling there. Sorry about that.

    to make up for it here is a link to that volvo advert

  • avatar

    Editing function is on its way.

  • avatar

    Truth in advertising.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Oddly, I at first thought it was the GL's brakes setting the cones on fire, too. Though, and I hate saying this, that frigging Merc could corner like a vehicle half its size. Worse than the Bold Moves TV spots are the print ads — you seen the one where they have a male model who supposedly picked up a bullet ridden Route 66 sign and took it to his apartment. Much to Pixar's chagrin, Route 66 doesn't register with anyone younger than born in 1948. And… taking home shotgunned signs? That dude has never even left the cap off his toothpaste.

  • avatar

    Yeah, but what about those late 80s Cadillac ads- “With the Cadillac’s 10 speaker surround stereo, who cares?” as the Caddy barrels over the ‘handling’ cones that the BMW has just slalomed through.

    I mean, come on, what kind of crazy nanny state do we live in? I’ve driven rental cars on the racetrack, only observe posted speed limits in moderation, and can do a passable Rockford-to-driveaway in almost any car. I’m not going to try and guess what target demographic I represent, some fraction of a percentage no doubt.

    I’m one of the targets of these ads, and I think have a pretty good handle on what cars are capable of, and the vast majority of these spots seem to be ad company masturbation. I don’t identify with the characters. And yeah, that Bold Moves print ad model pays for his own manicures AND pedicures.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Your memory is good “Qfrog” but I believe your facts are wrong – at least in the case of the Volvo print ad with the stacked Volvos. I believe that no structural fortification was required. Volvos at that point were simply built like tanks – well, they still are. But don’t look for an ad like that these days. The attorneys would kill that ad just by looking at a script or storyboard.
    Since Ford has owned them, with all due respect to William Clay Ford, you know that the idea of promising anything of substance is off the table, most especially anything involving safety. As an attorney might say, “Better to err on the side of caution.”

  • avatar
    Jay Shoemaker

    As a former marketing guy, I can tell you that advertising is meant to inspire; the lawyers chime in so that we don’t get too inspired.

    My favorite was the ad for the Corvette which aired briefly before being pulled. A 12 year old boy was driving a computer animated Corvette through the air like Luke Skywalker with a cute 12 year old girl seated next to him. It was truly inspired and the lawyers couldn’t figure out what to say to protect GM, so it was axed under protest (although presumably not from the pre-teen audience).

  • avatar

    Unfortunately we live in a society where the lawyers have sued common sense out of Joe Public’s head. Case in point, remember the Pepsi game where you collected points, either through bottle caps or purchase, and collected a prize? One of the commercials showed that if you collected enough points (I think they actually put a number on it) you could win a Harrier Jet.

    Some kid in Washington got some backers and actually collected enough points to “buy” the Harrier…..

    At least today’s commercials are better than those of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During that period you could not show any depiction of speed or dangerous driving, regardless of how outrageous (I remember the Nissan 300z TT commercial that was pulled). Now we have Mercedes 230 Kompressors drag racing from a stop light (saw that commercial last night), a 350z zipping through a city, etc.

    You can’t really blame the auto manufacturers for Autodisclamermania.

  • avatar

    Of course, there are the ads that are downright offensive. (To some)
    In the early ’90 Ford had this ad depicting an 800 lbs Gorilla maneuver an F150 through a lab course to show how easy and safe handling their behemoths were…… It did not take too long brfore various “civil rights” groups made sure thar the ad got yanked from TV and printed media……..

    Disclaimer: “Gorilla does not represent or resemble our targeted customer base….”.

  • avatar

    It could be worse:

  • avatar

    I think the ads that skirt the truth, like showing SUVs climbing mountains and taking people kayaking (or, for that matter, guys drinking Budweiser and getting chatted up by beautiful women) are within the bounds of truthiness, and if you’re fooled by that it’s your own damn fault. But that ad with the F-150 and the bulldozers sure fooled me. I have no interest in trucks, but my reaction was “wow that looks pretty good!” I’m not sure how exactly a legal distinction can be made, but that looks like straight-up lying to me.

  • avatar

    The ALLDERBLOB came across this post as hit number 50 or so in a google search of the phrase “full car advertising.” We didn’t know what “full car advertising” meant, or where it would lead, but when you google it (without the quotes) you get a hell of a lot of hits. Fact is, according to our site stats, it’s a phrase that led someone to us, and we’re always interested in how that happens. But to tell the truth, we never found the link to our site from within those 80,600,000 google hits. What stopped us was your promising title.

    “The Truth about Car Advertising” is a pretty potent come-on, as you gotta realize. It’s actually a brilliant and complex phrase, an oxymoron or something–you know, a phrase that contains within it a contradiction or a denial of its central premise.

    But in reading your editorial we realized you have not realized the full promise of the title you chose. It’s as if you did not grasp the cognitive dissonance brought on by placing the words “truth” and “car advertising” in such close proximity.

    Or maybe it’s just that The ALLDERBLOB takes a different position on car ads than your editorial does. We think car ads tell lies by definition, and their central lie is so pernicious, so destructive to society at large, so, well, evil, that there is no alternative in a society that wishes to defend itself and protect its future prosperity but to ban them outright.

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