Around The Bend—Now

It used to be diapers. Then there was Viagra. These were the ultimate marketing challenges. Now it’s cars. As symbols of status, mobility and the future, they used to be easy to sell. After all, can you imagine a more ultimately functional toy?

Now they are increasingly seen as a threat to our, um, very existence. Yes, global warming is here. And the car industry, especially the American one, is in a slump. As the budgets spiral downward, U.S. car brands continue to get their butts kicked by cars from Asia. And while the once hulking airlines have already geared down and become more streamlined and efficient in response to changing times, the yet more hulking car industry is still only waking up to the reality that SUVs and Hummers can no longer define the day. All while the leading holding companies watch as their advertising budgets spiral downwards, out of TV and increasingly into the Web.

Yes, we all know it: we need to seduce soccer moms into finding alternatives. But while the stereotypical monster trucks were still on display at this week’s Detroit and last month’s Los Angeles auto shows, the overriding story is how the future is here today. Not only does the new Lamborghini go a freaking 325 km/hr, but there’s a whole explosion of new technologies. Not only do iPod nodes dot the dashes, but Ford is busy branding an I-Car (how do U feel about that?). And, more interestingly, we have to start considering that these gadgets are new media opportunities with drivers—a car as a personalized media outlet?

Yes indeed, people still love their toys and really love having toys within their toys. Some things even smacked of science fiction: how exactly is Volkswagen applying nanotechnology to its Nanospyder? I swear the model looks exactly like a Hotwheel I once owned in the 1970s. Ditto with Mazdas concept car Nagare (of course it means “flow” in Japanese). And why all the dune buggies? Aren’t we supposed to be underwater soon? Is retro-futurism the new nostalgia? When is the new Jetson’s movie coming out? And which car company will sponsor it?

The future is also looking increasingly green. Hybrid, diesel, ethanol and even hydrogen cars are hot. The Lexus LS600h Hybrid and BMW’s Hydrogen 7 combine all the mod cons with the green ones.

In Motortown, the electrically propelled GM Volt might be exactly what the American commuter needs. Of course many of the green cars are at least a decade off from actual production, and it’s not as if hydrogen stations are popping up like mushrooms quite yet. So how much of all this is just shadows and lights? Is it all just corporate bandwagon jumping? And since sincerity is what clinches the direct deal with the consumer, they will all have to put their money where their mouths are to survive. It’s all about perception in the end, and things seem to be heading for change in Detroit and L.A., exactly at the moment when the ad industry is undergoing its greatest revolution. And this leads me to my strongest impression of the shows, especially Detroit, where I got a strong feeling that GM ain’t going to take the future lying down. The appropriately named Volt seems to represent the new potential of GM, a new enthusiasm and with it possibly the greatest evolution of the American car business.

And it wasn’t all about catchwords like “fuel efficiency” or “fuel alternatives” at the car shows; people are actually talking about the whole carbon footprint that cars leave behind. Out with steel and plastics, and in with such oddities as pinenut-impregnated surfaces in the name of later recycling. This appeals directly to the increased environmental consciousness, even activism, in the mainstream—who also happen to love their pesto sauce. It’s all connected. Call it the Gore trickle-down effect. Yes, being good does pay—as does realistic forward-thinking.

Recently, I heard the term “bio-diesel” from someone in our Amsterdam office who raved to me about it. Apparently some cops had pulled over some guy in a Jetta who was guilty of exuding French fry fumes from his exhaust. They found a vat of used grease squeezed in his backseat and directly connected to the diesel fuel system. My friend also told me that scientists have already invented methods of scrubbing that deep-fry grease clean, and how the addition of ethanol acts as an antigel. Back then I thought this was just one of my friend’s freakish raves; now I recognize it as, well, visionary. We should listen to our brainy eccentrics more!

It was the year of the L.A. car show, its 100th, which always worked under the shadow of the Detroit one (which also claimed to be 100, though its first recorded year was 1899). Some think L.A. would be the easy sell as the new mega show, since it is the home of what people claim is our “car culture” and the design firms of most of the major global car companies. But Detroit outshines with more international visitors and journalists because of its close proximity to New York’s media center. This year’s lesson: timing is everything. By moving L.A. ahead a month and pumping up the glitter factor, it more easily lured those gear-heads like me who never saw the need to go to both shows.

There is another lesson to draw from these shows: auto executives aren’t just looking for fresh, innovative car technology. They want to replace the yawn with fresh, modern marketing that redefines American car culture and takes advantage of the revolution unfolding inside the advertising industry. And in this lies the opportunity to replace the gray hallways of the auto industry with a lot of fun, energy and excitement.

Oh, but the real marketing lesson from the Aston Martin V8 Vantage roadster and Ferrari stands? Some things are still definitely same old, same old. Babes in bikinis still sell cars.