The Jaguar XK8 has a top speed of 155 miles per hour, but the company has been rapped for boasting about it. Last week the Advertising Standards Authority forced the company to withdraw a press ad which featured the car coming over the brow of a hill, with its wheels blurred and the strapline “Suddenly weekends are a blur again” (MW last week).
The ASA banned the ad as part of a general clampdown on speeding in ads. The move comes as roads minister Lord Whitty prepares to publish a paper called the Speeding Review, and has made it clear that the Government is planning to be radical on speed. Whitty has come under pressure to introduce lower speed limits and impose heavier punishments on offenders. In this atmosphere, restrictions on advertising are likely to get tighter.
The ASA has warned the car industry that it faces statutory curbs on using speed as a selling point. Even so, some industry observers see the warning as an empty threat. One agency insider says: “The Government simply has better things to do.”
The Government is being lobbied fiercely to impose 20mph limits in some built-up areas by pressure groups such as Brake.
Their concerns are understandable. Some 5,000 young pedestrians are killed or seriously injured every year. According to recent research by the BBC for Panorama, six in 100,000 people were killed on the roads in 1997.
Although a recent official report showed that excessive speed was the primary cause in only 4.3 per cent of accidents, reducing speed is a high-profile way of tackling the problem of deaths on the road.
Car ads that promote speed are a visible – and some might say easy – target for criticism. There is already a patchwork of regulations surrounding the subject. The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), which regulates television ads, has a list of prerequisites for all motor advertising, divided into eight points, each broken again into several sub-paragraphs for each scenario.
Motoring magazines carry editorial features about the top speeds and performance of cars. Yet an ad for a car cannot show it going over the speed limits set in the Highway Code, or refer to top speed capabilities in excess of UK speed limits.
“Portraying a car travelling at a fast speed in advertising makes it desirable because a fast car is an emotive image and makes its owner feel a sense of achievement,” says Paul Venn, board director on the Ford business at Rainey Kelly/Y&R.
Industry observers keep a sharp eye on car advertising. Sue Garrard, board account director in charge of road safety at Abbott Mead Vickers.BDDO, says: “Every time we [the agency and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions] see an ad that flagrantly breaks the codes we do something about it. We immediately contact the agency and advertiser responsible.”
But the advertising industry has found ways around the regulations, and still manages to get speed into car advertising. The most common method is showing car brands’ involvement with motor racing.
According to the BACC’s guidelines, sequences of motor racing or off-road rallying are acceptable provided they are clearly established as such.
Last year Ford ran an advertising campaign featuring its Focus rally car being driven by its team driver Colin McCrae. Venn defends Ford’s use of the rally car: “It’s common sense that consumers will not follow the driving style of Colin McRae. This is the Ford Motor Company leveraging its sponsorship of the World Rally car.”
Venn also adds: “Ford also uses Steve McQueen, an actor associated with speed, in ads for Puma, so portrayal of speed is unnecessary”.
Crispin Reed, director in charge of the Honda business at CDP, says Honda uses its new entry into Formula One not as an advertisement for the car’s speed, but to make consumers understand its machines are the “pinnacle of engineering”. Reed adds: “It’s performance in a controlled environment.”
Vauxhall marketing operations director Andy Jones says: “The most frustrating thing is the inconsistency in the rules. There is no doubt that we [car advertisers] look at other car advertisers’ ads and think: ‘How on earth did that get through?'”
Jones points to a recent Nissan ad, which did not show any car but apologised to the sponsors of its rally car for not being able to see the logo: “Getting around the speed issue is a test of creativity. It’s very clear the Nissan ad is about driving fast.”
Jones criticises car advertisers: “The advertising has no need to portray speed.” He believes consumers are already aware of the speed capabilities of cars, and feel that advertising should focus on the safety options the car has to offer.
Advertising agencies are cautious about the use of speeding in advertising, saying this is a sensitive issue with car manufacturers, which do not want the bad publicity. Agencies are also keen to stress how responsible their clients are on this matter.
Some, however, did express surprise at the speed cars were shown to be travelling in car ads. The current advertising for the Rover 25 and 45 is a campaign which is mentioned several times. It shows cars being driven around a pin-ball machine and a roulette wheel at a substantial speed.
It was allowed through because the BACC’s rules state that if the sequences are clearly fantasy and would not be physically possible for drivers to emulate in real life, this does not cause any difficulties.
A spokesman for the ASA says: “More car advertising portrays how safe a car is. There are fewer occasions on which we have to uphold complaints.”
Whatever complaints are upheld, agencies claim they do not set out to get around the ASA and ITC’s regulations. There is no doubt advertisers will use clever and innovative ways of getting messages across of high-speed performance to consumers. As Lord Whitty puts the issue of speed and road safety under public scrutiny, the industry will find it is playing a dangerous game by continuing its focus on fast cars.