Iain Murray: Creative car advertisers drive us to distraction

Advertising’s obsession with arty creativity has led to car ads which feature just about anything except the car itself. But what is the point, wonders Iain Murray?

Motorists are a contemplative lot. They have to be. Forced to sit motionless on a thrombotic motorway for hours on end with no finer prospect than the coughing exhaust in front, or obliged to crawl along some country lane behind the slowly undulating, lycra-clad buttocks of an ageing specimen on a racing bike, the driver finds the mind wandering.

At such times the brain forms a seething resentment, asking itself why, if it is necessary for one to be entombed for half eternity in a rust bucket, it cannot be a bucket of a better kind? One of those with hand-stitched, monkey hide upholstery, perhaps. Or a self-retracting, craftsman-tooled chromium ashtray nestling between ivory-clad controls of quadraphonic megawattage.

The answer is as simple as it is stupid – the advertisers are to blame. The argument runs thus: every year millions of pounds are wasted in persuading drivers to buy cars – so cut out the advertising, and cut the cost of motoring. Simple. And stupid.

This argument about advertising and price has been going on ever since the first economist crawled out of the primordial slime and scratched in the sand, with a stubby fin destined to evolve into a hand, a supply curve intersecting a demand curve.

Of course, motor manufacturers could cut the price of cars if they stopped advertising: they could also cut the price if they stopped buying steel, though that would mean they would eventually cease manufacturing altogether.

Implicit, though sometimes explicit, in the arguments of the opponents of advertising is a refusal to accept that it is a factor of production like any other. In their book advertising is wasteful and superfluous, which leaves no explanation for the millions spent on campaigns other than that the advertisers are lunatics.

Unfortunately for those of us who remain suspicious, if not downright hostile, when confronted by economists, it has to be admitted that the great majority of car ads, or at any rate those on TV, do indeed bear the hallmark of lunatic endeavour.

Car commercials are made on the assumption that the last thing the potential buyer wishes to see is the car. And so it is the last thing to be seen. It is preceded by anything that enters the adperson’s creatively seething head – falling leaves, landscapes, seascapes, street riots, a blonde mysteriously weighing herself at the kerbside, a unicyclist, teams of naked pituitary dwarves playing volleyball with cream-coated balloons on a sea of raspberry jelly (I made that last one up, but it will soon be on a screen near you).

We all know about creativity: merely to show the product is boring and does little to justify the huge budgets allocated to campaigns and even less to stretch the fecund brains whose time is so expensively bought.

But there is creativity and there is an imagination which, given licence to roam, strays so far from the product that it might as well have clocked off and gone down to the pub.

Speaking of which, my extensive research down at the pub reveals that nine out of ten correspondents able to focus on the question without passing out, declared that, of all ads on TV, those for cars were by far the most infuriating and the most likely to call into use the mute button, if not the off-switch.

One interviewee, lifting a rheumy eye from an opaque pint, observed that if you wanted to see what a new model of motor looked like you would be better off walking round Waitrose car park than looking at a TV ad.

Another correspondent, crawling across the lino towards the bar dragging an empty pint jug, stopped to tell us about a newspaper report in which scientists at the University of Jerusalem had discovered that advertising ideas generated by computers were judged almost as good as ideas in award-winning ads. There followed a lively debate in which every participant repeated himself several times, each louder than the one before, and sometimes with the words in reverse order. Such was the involuntary and expansive waving of arms that it was a wonder the contusions were so few and the number of eyes put out so limited; at the end of which it was agreed that car advertisements were dreamt up by vacuum cleaners.

This was followed by another discussion, this time prompted by findings at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, which showed that female maths undergraduates were unable to think logically after being shown sexist ads. Researchers were mystified, but one theory was that seeing the ads depicting women in “demeaning stereotypes” made the female students so angry they lost concentration and performed badly in a maths test.

Shortly after that, our ad hoc focus group lost consciousness, but not before agreeing that since men are now the butts of all the sexism in British ads, it is obvious why young British males are sullen, disaffected and unemployable, even lacking the will to tuck in their shirts. The advertisers are to blame.

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