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Car adverts over time – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Posted by: Thomas Harrison-Lord on 19 October 2016

The car advert is always a reliable barometer of where marketing has been, where it is now and where it is heading in the future. Promoting an automobile is always a challenging task amongst a hotly contested oligopoly, with many big businesses competing for your hard earned monthly payment via a plethora of models and options. There must be intense pressure to make an advert stand out from the crowd.

So I thought I’d compile the best, the worst and the best-worst car adverts of all time into one handy article. Hopefully, all of us in automotive marketing can learn from their brilliance, and from their mistakes. Each is hand-picked from my childhood memory as videos that really stood out from the rest. If you only skim-read my ramblings, the videos below are well worth a watch, even if you don’t care for cars or indeed commercials.

It’s almost a shame, in a way, that budgets are shifting away from grand productions such as these because some are real gems. But not only has the digital revolution caused a change in marketing efforts, advertising regularity boards also impose ever tighter restrictions on the creative process.

To epitomise what I mean, we start with this incredible advert for the Peugeot 405 from circa 1987. Watch and learn.

Take my breath away – Peugeot 405

Just stop and think for a minute. What exactly is this advert trying to say? Do forests explode when they catch fire? Why is it on fire in the first place? Will the car set on fire when I buy it? Will my breath be taken away thanks to toxic inhalation from the smoke? Some joke about Peugeot diesel pollution? I simply do not understand it, and I kind of respect that. Certainly, it got me thinking about Peugeot, if nothing else.

F1 champ picks a dud – Austin Rover Metro

Picture the scene. You’re a highly paid Formula 1 driver and a Grand Prix winner. So what car do you drive outside of the day job? Well, Austin-Rover wanted you to believe that you visit your local dealer and drive a, wait for it, Metro…

Worse than Nigel Mansell’s fashion sense, is the ‘dodgy’ car salesman stereotype, who ogles a woman playing with her equally stereotyped red shoes. Still, at least Murray Walker saves the day.

Grace Jones – Citroen CX

Nothing says ‘buy this car now’ more than one emerging from Grace Jones’ mouth, am I right? Simply inexplicable. A new Citroen CX emerges from her mouth, and then in a weird Grace Jones-ception, she is also driving said car and singing ‘Yeeeah, yeeaah’. Bizarre. The giant head is also extremely creepy.

Handbuilt by Robots – Fiat Strada

This is actually a really clever advert for the time with a great tagline. It manages to make a production line look almost balletic. The big irony is that the cars suffered from terrible build quality. Imagine creating an advert that talks about how well a car is built, only for the vehicles to self-destruct upon a simple test drive at the local dealership. Proof that a marketing campaign has to be achievable i.e. the product needs to at least come close to the promise.

Nicole et Papa – Renault Clio

I’ve included this advert here, not because of the long-running Papa and Nicole theme that Renault used to promote the Clio for over 10 years, but because it uses the best BBC theme tune ever. That of Ski Sunday. No arguments.

Cog – Honda Accord

I vividly remember the first time I witnessed cog in its full 2 minute glory. What an incredible feat of marketing genius. I instantly wanted to watch it again and went to my nearest YouTube. Only I didn’t, because it didn’t exist at the time. Instead, you could visit the Honda website and order a free DVD of the advert. Sad but true, I still have that DVD somewhere!

In truth, it isn’t actually shot in one long take, but 2 cuts, which somewhat spoils the mystique. However, it is real, they actually had to do thousands of attempts to get it working in sequence. It became part of the high-quality brand perception for Honda, enabling them to charge slightly premium prices compared to their direct rivals.

The Force – Volkswagen Passat

Super Bowl adverts have been in decline in recent years. They are becoming less inventive and less ‘out-there’. A few years ago I used to look forward to the event just for the adverts, because let’s be honest, that isn’t proper football. But here is one example of a perfect US sporting event ‘spot’. No expense spared (the Star Wars licensing is not cheap), clever and full to the brim with personality. I. Love. This. Advert.

Singing in the Rain – Volkswagen Golf GTI

Hands up who bought the MP3 of the track (by Mint Royale) used in this advert? I know I certainly did. One marketing bonus for an advert campaign was to include a song that was catchy and intrinsically tied with the promotion. The song could then be released to purchase, and if it became popular, people would think “Oh, I like this song, it’s from that advert off of the tele”. The whole thing snowballs and et voila, certified marketing gold. Like in the 1990s, if your pop song had ‘a dance’.

The stitching together of a classic scene with modern dancing to represent a new version of an iconic car, portrays a message without having to spell it out. The old one was ace, here’s a new one that is even more ace. Winner.

Magic Body Control – Mercedes-Benz

Who knew chickens could do this? I would love it if someone within Mercedes-Benz accidentally swayed a chicken and then spent years trying to incorporate it into an advert. Year after year, they would squeeze in a chicken idea to the board, before finally, someone said “Hey, that’s just like our new suspension system, we should do an advert with a chicken.” Bingo!

It’s a Skoda, Honest

This is what I feel is the very best automotive marketing campaign in recent memory. Not the flashiest advert. Not the most visually stimulating. But in terms of achieving the set goals, the “It’s a Skoda, Honest” series of TV adverts (and associated car window stickers on new Skodas at the time) remain an amazing example of marketing in action.

To fully appreciate the adverts, you need to know the context that cheap Skoda cars had been the butt of many jokes for decades. Under the control of Volkswagen, the aim was to reposition the brand from ‘cheap as chips’ to ‘actually a good value car that the discerning customer appreciates’. No small task. Brand perceptions are built up over many years.

This campaign cleverly plays on what customers used to think of Skodas, by putting across little stories of people not believing a car this good was indeed produced by Skoda. There was a whole series of adverts played out over the course of around 3 years. They were playing the long game, trying to improve the public’s viewpoint, and ultimately sell more vehicles. Bravo.

Below is just one of the ads, but you can watch another here, here, here and here too. I recommend you watch them all.

So, there we have it. Some of our favourite car adverts ever, for better or worse. Honourable mentions must go out to the Skoda made of cake, the Peugeot 205 GTI falling from an exploding parachute, the Citroen AX driving across the top of a train and the Renault car-crash ballet. Long may the automotive industry think of inventive ways to sell us a new car. I’ll be watching.

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