Do car ads without cars make sense?

General Motors’ (GM) decision to create a “virtual” band to promote the new Vauxhall Corsa (MW last week) has reopened the debate about the so-called “rules” of car advertising.

General Motors’ (GM) decision to create a “virtual” band to promote the new Vauxhall Corsa (MW last week) has reopened the debate about the so-called “rules” of car advertising.

Innovators like GM and Honda are pushing the boundaries by taking the focus off the car, but traditionalists question this strategy. They believe the first rule of car advertising is to show as much of the car as possible.

Honda’s former marketing director Simon Thompson, the man behind the multi award-winning “Cog” and “Grrr” ads, told Marketing Week that he wanted to avoid the car advertising clich?MW March 30).

Thompson, who is now Motorola’s European marketing chief, said at the time: “We realised there was no differentiation. In car land, the guy either got the girl or the job, or drove around the bend with his tyres squealing. The ads were all black, white and silver, and if you took the company badge out there was no difference between them.”

Similarly persuaded, GM and MTV have created the “fake” band The C.M.O.N.S, which feature in the new Corsa advertising created by Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, to try to break the mould. Vijay Iyer, senior product communications manager for GM Europe, adds: “We wanted a different type of campaign instead of the usual automotive work showing pictures of beautiful people doing funky things in cars.”

But one advertising executive, who has worked on several high-profile car brands, says the best car ads adhere to certain rules. “Most successful campaigns over the years have been distinctive ideas but built around the cars,” he explains. “It is a bit of a cop out to say you cannot be creative if you have to show a car. The challenge is to offer a point of difference as cars start to look more similar.”

Aspirational purchase A below-the-line agency source is also sceptical of new initiatives like The C.M.O.N.S, saying: “Our research shows people still want to see the car. It is an aspirational purchase and, although new ideas like these might sell a few cars, they are not long-term strategies.”

Last year, Audi became the first manufacturer to launch a dedicated TV channel to showcase its products. Guy Murphy, deputy chairman of the company’s advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), says the channel allows Audi to demonstrate its cars in more detail, while the agency can concentrate on the brand in ads.

He adds: “Companies want to show what the car looks like and how it performs and there’s nothing wrong with that because these things are important. But the problem is trying to do everything in one TV ad.”

BBH says people visit the Audi Channel for an average of 11 times before buying a car, and spend between 20 and 40 minutes viewing per visit. “That shows an enormous thirst for knowledge,” adds Murphy. “It’s fine not to show much of the car in an ad as long as there are other elements of the campaign that do so. The main reason that people buy cars is the styling, so you have to show that.”

Monochrome ads Dan Holliday, director of brand communications agency The Fish Can Sing, applauds GM for trying to be innovative but doubts the strategy is right for a car ad. “In the profoundly conservative world of monochrome car advertising, the campaign is a refreshing burst of energy,” he says. “But whether it succeeds in communicating anything about the actual car is very doubtful. I’m left wondering whether the product’s key message is intrinsic to the communication.”

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