What The Hell Happened To Car Advertising? Vol: 2

Social Car 1 AM

Honda has some cars for sale.

Anyone want one?

This miserable effort pretty much sums up the state of car advertising on social platforms:

Phoned-in copy. Dull layout. Zero wit. The whole sorry business built on the assumption that if you can drop something into someone’s field of vision, you don’t have to worry about the concept or the quality of the idea.

Here are some more heinous examples.

Social Car 2

Social Car 3

Bland.

Generic.

Lazy.

Embarrassing.

This kind of work is all the more baffling when you consider the current state of the automotive market place.

Statista

Source: Statista

There’s no real market leader, it’s a battle for market share. 

A battle where a 1% or 2% gain could rake in millions.

The question these automakers should be asking themselves is:

“How can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors?”

Instead, the intent seems to be the exact opposite.

More “How can we blend in?” than “How can we stand out?”

As I said, baffling.

There are 101 reasons for this, but the principal one is that no one seems to care.

No one wants to put in the hard yards to unearth a genuine point of difference.

To outthink, outsmart, and outsell.

Not the agencies who should be challenging their clients.

And not the clients who should expect more from their agencies.

Yes, cars and trucks today are pretty much of a muchness, but whoever said the business of advertising was supposed to be easy?

I can think of many a creative who’d kill for a chance to work on an automotive account, to think big, find an edge, and cream the competition.

And I bet you could, too.

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s required anymore.

Perhaps everyone is comfortable with the share they have?

Perhaps they make enough money as it is?

Perhaps they don’t want to upset the applecart by getting into the nasty business of “selling”?

Perhaps all the marketing directors are pals and go off on skiing holidays to Telluride twice a year?

Perhaps.

All I know is that automotive advertising used to be the gold standard for our industry.

It was one of the main reasons why many of us were attracted to the business in the first place.

Today it’s a shadow of its former self.

Of the countless ads from the past I could have used to illustrate what we seem to have lost, I’ve chosen this one for the American Motor Company by Wells Rich Greene.

AMC-Mustang

In 1968, AMC was about to go into Chapter 11.

Its market share was negligible and what it had was slipping through its fingers.

It didn’t have time to fool around.

It needed to sell some cars and damn quick.

When that’s your brief, you don’t mess about with “relationships” or “experiences.”

You go for the jugular.

You talk about the car, its features, its benefits, and why it’s better than the market leader.

That’s the way you save a business.

That’s the way you sell a car.

The Lost Art Of Giving A Shit

Somewhere around the turn of the century, giving a shit fell out of favor.

Not overnight, but imperceptibly, and by degrees.

The catalyst was the eclipse of traditional advertising by digital.

Audiences, we were told, could now be targeted with absolute and unprecedented accuracy. Wherever they went, whatever they viewed, custom content would seek them out and find them. There was no escape.

In this brave new world, you didn’t need to seduce, engage, or convince, you merely needed a boatload of content ready for deployment at a moment’s notice. 

Ideas were relegated to a mere by-product of delivery. 

And all those folks who gave a shit about things like that?

Well, they were shit out of luck.

The give-a-shitters were of a type. Their natural habitat was the agency Creative Department, and you could spot them a mile off.

They were the people who always insisted on questioning the brief.

Demanded that the work had a “concept.” 

That it be exciting and different.

What else was it they said? 

Oh, that’s right, impact. 

They were always banging on about that, too. 

Forever arguing and slowing things down. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, they were a royal pain in the arse.

But it wasn’t just the fact that they were troublesome.

Juxtaposed to the whizz-bang, buzzword-bull spouted by the adherents of analytics and data, they looked like positive dinosaurs.

The practitioners of giving a shit never really disappeared.

They just became progressively less tolerated.

No longer revered, and often seen as “difficult,” they were far more likely to be jettisoned at the first sign of a downsizing or merger. 

The pragmatic learned to pick their battles. 

The smart simply shut the fuck up.

This was the way of things until recently when, out of the blue, something strangely beautiful, and unexpected happened. 

Clients started asking questions. 

Big questions. About everything. 

Questions like:

What exactly was the value of a View, a Like, or one of those Thumbs Up emoji thingys?

Why was engagement nonexistent?

When will “conversations” convert into sales?

Why aren’t the ads being seen?

And where in God’s name was the ROI?

Quite.

Call me naive – and believe me, I’ve been called much worse – but I think the penny is starting to drop.

The savvy among us are starting to realize that being able to plop a message into someone’s field of view with absolute precision is only half the task and that the real one – the one that concerns the quality of the creative work being delivered – is the one that really matters.

Work that demands attention. 

That persuades and communicates with immediacy.

That can’t be phoned in. 

Or automated. Or programmed. 

But must be plucked from hidden chambers within the imagination and shepherded into existence through a mixture of alchemy, talent, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

 By oddballs, mavericks, and non-conformists.

By people who give a shit.

No longer a liability or an indulgence, we need these rebels now more than ever.

Welcome back to the fold all you difficult, crazy bastards.

We’ve missed you.

“Business wants remarkable advertising but doesn’t want the kind of people who can produce it.” David Ogilvy

The Man Who Blew Things Up

This is apropos nothing, but I think you’ll like it, so hang tight.

Advertising has given me many things. A career, a raft of good friends, a body of work I’m proud of, and a sense of accomplishment. Sure, I’d like to have climbed higher, and had a shot at a few more iconic brands. But for the most part, the journey’s been wild, rewarding and fun.

Said journey has also been laden with anecdotes, often scarcely believable. These moments and memories are the ones that come back most readily when I look back over a vocation spanning close to 30 years. 

If the reader will indulge me, I’d like to start sharing some of these tales. They’re not necessarily bursting with earth-shattering insights, but if they raise a chuckle, an eyebrow, or a nod of recognition, then they’ll have done their job.

So here without further ado is the first one, and, as the title suggests, it comes with a few fireworks.

More years ago than I care to remember, I shot a series of TV spots out in California. 

We’d flown into LAX and spent the evening in Santa Monica going over the boards with the production company at Shutters – as you do. The following morning, we headed out for Ventura County, where we were scheduled to shoot on a farm for three days.

It being California, it was warm and sunny; it being me, I’d forgotten to bring my sunglasses. 

The prospect of spending three days squinting into the sun held no appeal, so I asked my travel companions to keep an eye out for a surf shop in Malibu.

We spied one overlooking the beach. My friends hit the McDonald’s next door, and I stepped up to the store alone. 

I entered into subterranean darkness. There was not a soul in the place, not even, on first inspection, an owner.  Then out of the gloom, a figure emerged.

Taut, lean, tan of face, with tell-tale white goggle patches around his eyes and a grizzled thatch of sea-salt encrusted hair perched upon his head, he looked every bit the surf shop owner who lives to surf every hour he’s not in the store.  

Pleasantries exchanged, he pointed me to a rack of glasses that sat on the counter before us.

I hemmed and hawed a bit, grabbed a pair that sufficed and prepared to check out. It was here that the small talk took a turn and things got interesting.

SURFER: “So what brings you to Malibu?”

ME: “I work in advertising. I’m on my way to Ventura County to shoot a couple of TV spots on one of the farms.”

SURFER: “Cool. I work in advertising, too.”

ME: Oh, yeah, what is it you do?”

SURFER: “I blow things up.”

Here a pause. 

Sensing a raft of questions, he moved to put me out of my misery.

SURFER: “Want to see some of my work?”

Abso-frickin’-lutely.

He disappeared into the murk and was back in a thrice with a MacBook. A couple of clicks later, he spun it around and gave me the setup and pitch.

He was an explosives expert. Working on movies mostly. When the warehouse goes up in an almighty ball of fire with the hero desperately scrabbling for cover, chances are it’s his finger on the detonator. Since a big movie took him away from his beloved surf for months at a time, he had recently moved into commercial work for ad agencies – short turnaround, decent payday, way more surfing.  

What he was about to show me was a spot for Farmers Insurance. The concept centered on the potentially catastrophic effects of a gas leak; a worse-case-scenario number that required him to send an archetypal all-American residence up in flames.

By an incredible stroke of luck, he’d found the perfect house on the Desperate Housewives lot at Warner Brothers. Surplus to requirements at the end of the previous season, it was ripe for blowing to smithereens.

The self-same house sat on the screen before me, a prelude to a showreel of raw footage. 

It was rigged to the gills with dynamite. For authenticity, he’d insisted the home be filled with all the accouterments of everyday life: furniture, beds, sofas, tables, chairs, toilets, baths, soap dishes, kettles, litter tray – everything. As exploding houses go, this would be legit.

And choreographed. This guy knew where every last splinter would be going. 

The tour de force would be the chimney stack. Independently rigged, it was set to launch into the evening sky like a Saturn rocket setting off from Cape Canaveral. 

Outside no less than 13 cameras stood ready to capture the action. 12 in a semi-circle around the house with a 4-story high crane dead center to catch the aerial view. 

The peanut gallery – producer, client, agency team, and presumably medic and fire marshall –  were stationed in a bunker close, but not too close, to the impending inferno. 

He gave me a tacit look that said, “Ready?”

I nodded my ascent, and he hit the space bar.

With a crack and a flash of light, the whole thing went up. Windows blew out, doors disintegrated, detritus and fragments flew everywhere. 

Right on cue, the chimney stack blazed past the camera on the crane.

It was everything he said it would be.

And it was all over in less than 30 seconds.

I was later informed that the whole thing had cost a quarter of a million dollars. 

We watched it back from every conceivable angle and in the full majesty of slo-mo.

It was magnificent every time.

There was nothing more to say. 

He did indeed work in advertising, and he did indeed blow things up. 

Spectacularly. 

I paid for my glasses, thanked the man, and was off. Better for my visit and with a hell of a story to relate to my colleagues on the way up to the farm.

A farm, incidentally, that would supply an equally weird and wonderful tale just a few days later.

Another anecdote for another day. 

Experience Advertising vs. The Real Thing

Get a load of this.

“Consumers expect a lot more from brands than ever before. They don’t simply want delivery of products or services. They want brands to engage with them in meaningful ways. They want experiences that deliver meaning and community. They expect their brands to bring them joy.”    

It’s from a recent Adweek article on Momentum Worldwide’s “We Know Experience 2.0” research  https://bit.ly/2JkPamz

I read it. 

I reread it. 

I registered the extensive nature of the study and the clout of the agency behind it.

And I still don’t buy it.

I don’t buy that people expect more from brands.

Or want to engage with them.

Or expect them to bring them joy.

Not really.

It seems to me that if you ask people a dumbass question like “Do you expect brands to bring you joy?” they’re almost certainly going to tell you, “Sure, why not”

Who wouldn’t?

Similarly, if you ask them, “Would you like brands to deliver meaningful experiences for your community?” is anyone surprised if the response is, “Yeah, that would be great, too.”

How about if they engaged you in “meaningful ways”?

“Abso-frickin’-lutely”

Ask a leading question, get a misleading answer.

Here are some more choice insights from the same article:

83 percent of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take away stress or anxiety.

86 percent of consumers believe it is important for brands to make them feel better.

Does anyone actually believe that?

There are no prizes for guessing what the study’s conclusion is.

“Experiences matter and experiential needs to move to the center of all brand marketing plans. The future is about doing, not saying. Experiential makes brands authentic and real.”   

This is the kind of lazy thinking that nowadays passes for real thinking.

Real thinking isn’t easy.

It’s hard work.

It requires you to dig into a product or service and discover something compelling about it. 

How is it better, stronger, smarter, faster, greener, easier, or otherwise more useful, different, valuable, or beneficial than its competitors?

This takes time, effort, and patience.

Done well, it will result in work of substance, significance, and longevity. 

The proponents of lazy thinking can’t be bothered with any of this.

They’d much rather just make the answer an “experience” and be done with it.

It’s okay to have a set of values and a purpose that go above and beyond what it is you make and sell.

But sometimes people just want a hamburger.

Or a razor blade that gives them a close shave.

Or a car they know to be preferable to another.

And while it’s undoubtedly more satisfying to create an experience than it is to roll up your sleeves and deliver work that actually sells, the best does both.

As luck would have it, Coca Cola has a great new campaign that does exactly that.

0-1

0-3

0-2

A simple truth.

Powerfully told.

Based on an experience.

It’s the real thing.

Cutting Up at The Cut

My first real job in advertising was at The Leith in the early 1990s.

Then, as now, it ruled the roost as the premier creative shop in Scotland. 

Which is not to say that there weren’t rival agencies giving them a run for their money. Faulds, 1576, and Marr Associates were all producing award-winning work regularly. Creatively speaking, Auld Reekie was firing on all cylinders.

Proof could be found every Friday evening. That was when every agency creative, account director and strategist worth their salt would meet in the Cumberland Arms for the weekly gathering of the tribes.

The place would be packed to the rafters. If you opened the main door anytime after six, a minimum of three punters would tumble out. Such was the seething mass jammed therein, on colder evenings, of which there were many, the heat emanating from the place would instantaneously steam up the lenses of any new arrival wearing spectacles. Once inside you’d squeeze, twist, “hello” and “hiya” your way toward the bar, a journey of some fifteen feet that would take upward of twenty minutes to navigate. 

It was worth it. Finally armed with a hard-earned pint or glass of vino, you’d be free to discuss everything and anything with anyone and everyone. Imminent pitches, new work, old work, good work, crap work, moves, gossip, banter, outrage, and slander, all were talked out with great animation far into the evening, or until accumulated intoxication rendered conversation unintelligible.

Evenings such as this taught me that where there are beer and wine to be had in friendly environs, the will to do great work will quickly become evident.

So it proved last week when I attended my first Copywriters Unite gathering at The Cut Bar in London. The brainchild of Vikki Ross, Copywriters Unite does exactly what it says on the tin. 

For three hours, close to 40 copywriters of every stripe came together to put the world of advertising copy to rights over a beer or two. Young and old, fresh-faced and battle-hardened, they came from near and far to find common cause in a shared passion, and to maybe earn a sympathetic ear for those times when it’s just you and a cold keyboard at seven in the evening with a traffic manager tapping their feet outside your door.

The fact that I could just descend from out of nowhere and slip seamlessly into the chats, rants, woes, and laughs spoke to the universal nature of the topics: The thrill of a great headline, the buzz of a wonderfully turned piece of prose, and the urge to share a new bit of nonsense or bizzaro source of inspiration.  

It was ever thus because it’s what we do. It’s our craft. The fire behind flame that keeps us all sane.

And as long as it never goes out, we’ll be okay.

We’ll always find a new TV spot or poster to cheer, to raise a glass to, and say, “I wish I’d done that.”

Advertising has changed irrevocably since my days in Edinburgh.

The nature of what we do, how it’s delivered, and where it’s seen, is now completely different.

But the drive to create something fresh and different, and, just as importantly, the desire to talk about it over a beer?

That hasn’t changed one bit.

For more information on CopyWriters Unite get-togethers up and down the UK, follow @vikkirosswrites and @copywritersunite on Twitter

Must-Read Writers: Clive James

There was only ever going to be one candidate for my first piece on “Must-Read Writers.”

Not Dickens or Orwell or a contemporary favorite like a Hornby or Fry, much as I love them all.

No, there could only be one. It had to be Clive James. 

Clive James has been reminding me of how a well-honed argument must necessarily read on a page and play in the mind since I first made his acquaintance more than thirty years ago. 

Rightly acclaimed in the UK and his native Australia as a cultural gem, he is, for some unfathomable reason, all but unknown in the United States – a situation I hope to rectify in some small way over the forthcoming paragraphs. 

But how best to capture a man who’s variously a critic, novelist, essayist, and poet? Well, as luck would have it, the beginning will more than suffice. 

James rose to recognition in the late 70s on the back an autobiography of his formative years growing up in Australia. Blessed with a belly laugh on every page, and unashamedly playing fast and loose with the truth, Unreliable Memoirs is a hoot of the first order.

Here’s the first line.

I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.

It’s like that the whole way through. There’s gold wherever you dig. When he goes to live with his Aunt Dot in Jannali, it is set down thus:

Memoirs Short 2

Prior to that James had cut his teeth writing a weekly column of TV criticism for the UK’s Observer, reinventing the genre in the process. Clocking in at around a thousand words apiece, each one is a bite-sized master class of vacuum packed insight laced with snot-snorting humor.

Here he is nailed re-runs of Star Trek:

Star Trek

I must have read that a hundred times. It never fails to draw a guffaw. Collections have been compiled into various volumes, Visions Before Midnight being the best of them, an aspiring copywriter could do worse than read every single one.

By the 1990s, James was in front of the camera himself, either as a guest, or more likely, hosting popular shows like Clive James on Television and becoming a much-loved television personality in the process. 

But he was still writing prolifically, contributing essays and critical pieces to the likes of the New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement. These were many and varied – a mark of the man and the mind – and it’s here that a deeper dive into his work pays the most dividends.

While it’s near impossible to excise a fragment without doing an injustice to the whole, I’m confident that the opening paragraphs to this essay on George Orwell will have enquiring minds seeking out Even As We Speak for the entire thing. Once you’ve got one collection of criticism the games up. You have to have them all.

Orwell FINAL

There’s an old advertising adage that says make the usual unusual and the unusual usual. James pulls the same trick with his criticism. He’ll unearth an artist buried deep into obscurity and render them instantly relevant and unforgettable. Bruno Schulz would be one, J. B. Morton another. He’ll then pull the reverse trick and throw tangential light on someone you thought you knew all too well but actually didn’t have the first idea on. A piece on the actor Tony Curtis, from Cultural Amnesia, springs to mind.

Curtis

The result of all this good stuff is inevitably an expanded horizon and an insatiable desire to chase down a new found interest in the nearest second-hand book store. In this way, James has been a gateway drug to such heady talents as Philip Larkin, Eric Roth, Alan Coren, Robert Hughes, and Peter Porter.

Latterly, he’s devoted more and more of his time to poetry, age and poor health almost certainly providing the impetus for this piece.

Clive James

Such writing endures. Poetry or prose, wisdom or wisecrack, it reminds you of how far you fall short while affording you a clear view of the heights to attain. It’s a tough climb but, with luck, some small part of the greatness will rub off on you.

And that’s why I made Clive James the first in this series.

We often wait until our heroes are gone before we shower them with praise due to them while they’re with us.

Clive James has more than earned mine, and I don’t doubt, in good time, yours, too.

If this post manages to garner just one extra reader, I hope it’s him.

Thanks, Clive.

What the hell happened to car advertising?

Car advertising was once the benchmark for all that was good in our industry.

Decades of brilliant creative work for the likes of VW, Volvo, BMW, Porsche, and others had established a gold standard that everyone sought to uphold and emulate.

Not any more.

This is what passes for automotive advertising today.

Conceptually, it’s dead on arrival.

But, let’s face it, it’s the dialogue that really challenges the will to live here.

If you can bear it, here it is in full:

Do
Do your thing
Flee that nest
Find your inspiration
Seize that moment
Be extraordinary
Spread your wings
Mazda
Feel Alive

If someone told me that an AI algorithm had spat out this dross after ingesting a billion glib car clichés, I frankly wouldn’t be surprised. Nor was I surprised to learn that the same copy had been used on almost identical spots for the CX-3, 6 and 9. Four ads for the price of one. Result!

Contrast this lazy thinking with work for the same brand from Gold Greenlees Trott in the 1980s.

Mazda 1

Mazda 2

Tough, no-nonsense reasons to buy augmented by an arresting visual.

Would that today’s stuff was as well put together.

So what happened? How did this sorry state of affairs come to pass? And, more to the point, how can we get back to doing great work for, let’s face it, great brands?

As a refresher, and entirely chosen at random, here are more examples from a time when joined-up thinking and smart ideas were the norms.

VW 1 Price

Volvo 3

Porche 1

VW Van 1

2CV 1

Each one is built on a single-minded thought.

Each one demands our attention.

Each one communicates persuasively with economy, wit, and confidence.

And, of course, each one has a look, an attitude and a personality that’s theirs and theirs alone – you’d be hard-pressed to mistake a VW ad for a Volvo or Citroen for a Porsche.

These ads built on one another. They accumulated value and incrementally raised expectations and properties around the brand over time. Today’s ads do none of these things. Bereft of any conceptual merit or sense of longevity, they merely piss away a tidy budget down a hole of invisibility.

Where the responsibility lies for the whole Mazda CX-5 debacle is anyone’s guess. Who knows, maybe everyone’s chuffed with it, and sales are through the roof.

Somehow I doubt it.

The whole thing smacks of a subjugated creative team. Of countless valiant attempts to get better work approved to no avail. Just one look at the script tells you it was micro-mandated by committee and crippled by fear.

Yes, never forget fear.

Fear of being different.

Fear of standing out.

Fear of being provocative.

There’s absolutely no reason why today’s car ads shouldn’t be as good as those of yesteryear. The creative talent is out there. It’s ready, willing and more than able. But for it to shine, we first need to rid ourselves of all the managers, planners, researchers, experience gurus, cultural anthropologists, and other schmucks who get in the way.

Throw them in the back seat and tell ‘em to be quiet. Give the keys back to the creatives, turn off the GPS, and let them take us places we’ve never been before. Down roads unfamiliar and avenues unusual. The further off the beaten track the better.

The work will improve, brands will be built, and sales will rise.

But best of all:

Car advertising will be back.