Are Auto Ads a Forgettable Experience?

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams
are auto ads a forgettable experience

Ad agencies evaluate the effectiveness of their artistry using a "recall score." The metric measures how well consumers remember a brand and/or product within 24 hours of having seen its advert. A high recall score means the commercial hot-wired the product into the consumers' minds. A low score means the sponsor wasted their money. Although I watch quite a bit of TV, this semi-professional pistonhead can't recall more than a handful of car ads. So much for carmakers getting their money's worth.

One ad that managed to stick in my mental craw: GM's $150m campaign for Chevy's new "now you see, now you can't buy it" Malibu. The ads show a computer-generated facsimile of the ‘Bu zooming around intimidating Camrys and generally showing off its sleek new lines. At first I wondered if the ad agency also couldn't get their hands on one, hence the computer animation. Then I wondered where they spent the remaining $149,975,000.

But at least the Malibu is in production. Another ad GM's running shows an ethnically blended troop of kids with their ears against a Volt, listening to it hum. The hip young spokesman tells them it's "the extended-range electric car powered by the miracle of the advanced lithium-ion battery pack." And hey! "They expect they'll get up to 40 miles without a drop of gas." The kids gasp their appreciation like they're about to snort Pixies Sticks. "I've heard the future and it hums" the actor exclaims. The obligatory voice-over intones "Chevy- from gas-friendly to gas free. That's an American revolution."

What they don't bother to say, except in small print flashed momentarily at the bottom of the screen, is that you can't have get one– no matter how badly you want it. They also neglect to mention that the production model- whenever it arrives- will look nothing like the sexy beast whispering God knows what into kids' ears (where's Steve King when you need him?). Or that once you go past that claimed 40-mile range you're burning petrochemicals to recharge the batteries. Or that currently the only "gas free" model Chevy offers is a large diesel-powered pickup truck.

The manufacturers all seem Hell bent on saving us from our own tailpipe pollution (i.e. alleviating globally-warmed guilt). From Accords driving through tunnels lined with images of nature at its best to Subarus coexisting with Bambi, carmakers want you to believe that it's OK to buy their car; Mother Nature won't mind a bit if you do.

The most blatant example of eco-misdirection is from Toyota. They show a Prius made of twigs and leaves raising spontaneously from the muck of a bog only to return to it, convincing us (they hope) that their eco-mobile is one with nature. Just don't think about what's required to manufacture or dispose of those battery packs crammed within. Or the fuel oil burned to ship the cars here from Japan.

The award for the strangest eco-mercial shows a group of hit men trying to take each other out with water pistols, super shooters and water balloons. The message? "What if we could replace something harmful with water?" You guessed it: it's an ad for Honda's yet-to-be-released limited production Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car.

So hit men won't kill each other with water balloons (is there a hit man jobs bank?) and we won't kill each other with the Clarity because all it produces is water instead of that yucky greenhouse gas. Of course, we're not supposed to think about how much energy is used to make that hydrogen or what the by-products of that process might be. Or the fact that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. I'm beginning to think Norway had the right idea by banning car ads that extol the a car's benefit to the environment.

Meanwhile, trucks. Big. Macho Trucks. Ford, Chevy, Toyota, Nissan and Dodge all have the toughest truck. They're all the biggest, haul the most, tow the most, last the longest and offer "class leading" fuel economy. By implication, anyone who doesn't buy theirs is a weenie. And they practically take a sledgehammer to their truck to prove… some weird sado-masochistic point.

The Tundra ad best reflects this chorus of "any abuse you can take I can take more" pre-school of thought. The Texas Toyota hauls a trailer up and then down an iron teeter-totter poised over a cliff (I think) in a landscape that would give Mad Max the heebie-jeebies. What's the point? If you're ever performing truck tricks at a post-apocalyptic party, the Tundra's the way to go.

And that's it. That's all I got. Except this: a new study of auto advertising found that Japanese auto manufacturers reached 22 percent more audience than U.S. automakers and 27 percent more than European manufacturers. Considering the car ads in question, it's clear that the entire auto industry's reach exceeds its grasp.

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  • Joe O Joe O on Dec 03, 2007

    Impressive display of both car scorn and ad knowledge in these comments. First, on the ads: VW has always struck me as the most consistently on target for creating memorable ads AND brand recognition. I can't believe no one has mentioned the ad where the gentleman licks the car to prevent the new owners from taking it home. Water vapor is the primary greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and yet we are rushing to produce hydrogen cars? Eegads! Ethanol stores less energy than gasoline and takes more to make? Yikes! Hybrids use funky things in their production that are not environmentally friendly? Wowie. The only things I've seen to date that I like for the future are: 1. Plug-in electric - the infrastructure exists and producing electricity is cheap, easy to regulate, and can be done cleanly through a variety of methods. If this catches on, it will only advance the industry and our country's electric infrastructure. 2. Diesel - In leaps and bounds, diesel technology is getting more efficient, cleaner, and producing greater power. The advantages over gasoline are substantial, and it's still improving. 3. Hydraulic - Hydraulic drive systems re-use wasted kinetic energy. I use the metaphor of the spring...when the car slows down, the hydraulic system acts as a spring "compressing" (storing up energy). As you accelerate, the hydraulic system releases energy to move the car forward. Currently large, bulky systems used on UPS trucks. Yields thus far have been a 60% increase in economy and 40% reduction in emissions. 4. Ingenuity - BMW efficient dynamics seems to capture this best. On-demand water pumps, alternators that decouple and use regenerative braking to charge, steam-based closed system turbochargers that reuse exhaust heat, stop-start technology. All things that can be added to current cars and add up to substantial savings. 5. Mixtures of the above - A diesel engine utilizing a hybrid-plug-in system to allow electric-only operation at idle and low speed, hydraulic energy recapture, and efficient dynamics to help the car not waste energy. Science always finds a way to escape those who don't want it. But we were talking about ads. Joe

  • Nametag Nametag on Dec 04, 2007

    Sometimes, the right voice makes all the difference. I remember the numerous ads voiced by Hector Alejandro in the 90's for Buick. Seemed to the right voice for the right car. I would never imagine James Earl Jones voicing ads for Hyndai...

  • Analoggrotto Robocop
  • ToolGuy Nice truck.Thinking out loud on a Monday: So if my next road-trip EV also has the towing capacity to handle a nice big (6'x14') wood-floor utility trailer (900 pound trailer weight plus 2090 pound trailer capacity = 2,990 pounds max) around town (say 10-mile radius typical for me), do I really need a truck anymore? (Probably not.) EV Towing Capacity (e.g., Model X = 5,000 pounds towing) Trailer (nice and low to the ground, see?)I'll miss you, truck. 😉
  • FreedMike Looks sharp. But did they fix the hilariously bad torque steer on the N-Line model? The one I drove brought back memories of the Omni GLH Turbo.
  • Kendahl I might believe that, on a back road in a rural county, one might run into a cop who doesn't know the law he is paid to enforce. However, I-75 is the main route for snowbirds, of whom a sizeable fraction are Canadian, commuting to and from Florida. It was the cop's responsibility to know that Florida honors foreign licenses. Nield should have hired a lawyer to rub that in.
  • Arthur Dailey So they cut the roof off the hatch area of a Dodge Journey?