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Perspective: Get a Grip

The old reliable steering-wheel shot still delivers the goods
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For all the gimmickry that’s been added to the automotive marketer’s toolbox in recent decades, one practice remains effective and low-tech: the good old shot of the dash and steering wheel. No hosed-down “S” track, no celebrity pitchmen; just a picture of what it looks like to sit in the front. Among luxury nameplates in particular, the cockpit photo has been ubiquitous since WWII, be it for the 1948 Packard 22 Series sedan (r.) or the 2011 Land Rover LR4 SUV (opposite). But look closely: These images may be similar, but they cast their marketing spells differently.

     In 1947, Packard was nearing the end of its run as the most luxurious car produced in Detroit. Fueled by the clubby tagline, “Ask the man who owns one,” Packard was the mogul’s car. In 1915, a Ford would cost you just under $500; Packards started at $2,800. The brand’s loyal owners would come to include Al Capone, Clark Gable, Jack Benny, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even though Cadillac had been gaining on Packard’s market share for years, Packard executives were optimistic for the ‘48 model year. The dark days of war production were over, and the daring lines of Packard’s industrial designer Al Prance, it believed, were sure to turn heads. Packard could have teased the new 22 Series sedan with a shot of the grille or the hood ornament, but it chose the dashboard.

     Why? Basic psychology. “Marketing to a luxury audience, you want to put customers into the driver’s seat—a position of control where they can imagine themselves,” says Dan Balser, advertising department head of The Creative Circus, a marketing college based in Atlanta. Still, Balser adds, Packard’s approach to the cockpit photo (actually, a watercolor) was wholly literal—the ivory-colored wheel, the chrome accents, the promise of “breathtaking” beauty. “While it’s a pretty damned cool steering wheel, this was still the 1940s—before the creative revolution in advertising,” Balser says. “Packard was just announcing its product; Range Rover would connect to the user’s emotions.”

     With its $48,000 sticker, the Rover is in a comparable class to what Packard once was. But while its marketers did opt to use a steering-wheel shot, they suffused it in messaging more subconscious than literal. Note the glove-leather interior and, just outside, the golf club setting. “This is about the promise of luxury,” Balser says. “Sure, they’re selling a car—but they’re really selling an extension of the role the customer has in his real life.” In other words, Packard showed you the model; Range Rover showed you the status that was yours after you bought it.

     In the end, Prance’s design for the ‘48 Packard did turn heads—toward a car that many likened to an upside-down bathtub. Consumers flocked to Cadillac’s new 1948 model—which featured a novelty known as tail fins. Its steering wheel wasn’t bad looking, either.