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Auto Ads Need Manual Stimulation

By Rodger Pille · January 20th, 2000 · Ad Nauseam

Easily 90 percent of car commercials nowadays feature a square-jawed man (a) hauling Sherman tanks in the back of his pickup truck, (b) zipping down a curvy, rain-drenched road with no knowledge that the horizontal pedal at his feet is a brake or (c) hauling Sherman tanks down the rain-drenched street in his zippy pickup.

These commercials are about as fun as they are real ... which is to say: Not. At all. They are exercises in machismo. If the FCC allowed these companies to show the men hauling Sherman tanks filled with naked women, damn it, they would.

I understand the point. Purchasing a car -- still today, oh PC-world -- is predominantly a man's job. He, after all, has that innate sense to ask, "Hey! what's the rear wheel differential on this axle?" Mind you, this is merely something he heard once in a Burt Reynolds movie. Regardless of the answer, the male will then nod his head approvingly and give his accompanying female a wink that says, "That's what I thought."

The undeniable truth, however, is that more women are buying cars. For that matter, more guys who think pickup trucks are overindulgent are buying cars. Where are the ads for these people?

About seven years ago, they sprung up on us. So unlike any previous automotive commercials, these ads jumped off the screen and demanded a second look. They were for Saturn.

The first ones played into the newness of the car.

All walks of life stopped to ask a simple delivery person what model of car he was shipping. The next round of spots did something even stranger, featuring the line workers who made the car. "Hi, I'm Frank," went a typical ad. "I worked on your rear wheel differential. You don't know what that means, but that's OK. You don't have to."

That was exactly the point. Saturn ads said nothing about the cars themselves. They sold the people behind the cars. It was a watershed in auto advertising.

The current rotation of Saturn spots capitalizes on the company's newest asset: proud owners. From the Hollywood location scout who lives out of her Saturn to the guy who commutes so far that the first time he brought the car in for service was to replace was his worn-out seat.

Never do you hear boasts about acceleration, gas mileage or innovative safety features. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to hear any superlative whatsoever. Ordinary folks want/can afford an ordinary car.

I know. I am one of them. I bought my Saturn because I wanted to be applauded as I exited the dealership, wanted to be invited to the annual owners' wienie roast in Tennessee, and enjoyed the total lack of pretense in the company's ads.

Some will say Saturn has taken it too far. It's become less of a club and more of a cult. Make no mistake: The people who say this are jealous bastards who can't get a decent trade-in on their Hyundais. Besides, enthusiasts are driving down to Tennessee for a picnic, not a David Koresh fan club meeting.

What Saturn has essentially done, besides fill a gaping consumer niche, is create a marketing revolution. The new fad isn't stop-motion Gap commercials, folks. It's the idea that it's cool to say nothing. Case in point: the VW Bug ads. A techno-groove underscores the car spinning around 360 degrees on the screen for a full 20 seconds. Less is suddenly more.

Back in the early '90s, Saturn marketers -- like their product -- were young, fresh and decidedly no-frills. They wanted to try something innovative. Forget the car. Sell the relationship. Their critics say soft-selling is as dead as Willie Loman. But if your competition copies your style, you know you're doing something right.

Call it the "Saturn-ization" of the industry. The little car company that could has rewritten the rules by -- of all things -- not taking themselves too seriously.

AD NAUSEAM is CityBeat's monthly exploration of the wide world of advertising. If you spot a hot trend or have your shorts in a bunch over a new ad or campaign, you can write to Rodger at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202 or e-mail him at letters@citybeat.com.


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