Ken Roman: Name a Memorable American Car Campaign From the Last Decade

By Matt Van Hoven 

I sat down with former Ogilvy & Mather (it’s pronounced may-ther) CEO Ken Roman last week to talk about his new book, “The King of Madison Avenue,” (the first autobiography of David Ogilvy) and to pick his brain about the industry as he sees it. Mr. Roman sat in a desk at O&M for 26 years, so when he said the biggest problem facing the auto industry is their lackluster products, we listened.

Mr. Roman asked me to name an American automobile campaign that stuck out in my mind. Chevy’s “Like a Rock” and Ford’s “Built Ford Tough” were all that came to mind. “I take your point on Chevy,” he said, “but name something from the last decade.” I couldn’t.

Arguably, Ford Tough evokes strength, but it’s “Like a Rock” remade. Mr. Roman went on to say that compared to the rest of the world, American cars are unimaginative. We agree &#151 put a few American sedans next to one another, pull the badges, and try to name their maker.

Juxtapose that by placing a BMW, Audi/VW, Honda et cetera in a similar array and the task is much easier. And we haven’t sat down in the cabin yet.

Other issues with American autos include pricing, gas mileage and presumed reliability and the big three have nothing short of a mountain to drive over. We’re not convinced Chevy’s Volt is up to the task.

And sure, the companies are trying to address these problems. But Toyota’s Corolla has been saving gas since the dawn of the company. Include Nissan, Mitsubishi, Fiat, Kia, Hyundai, MG, Peugot, Mini, SmartCar and any number of foreign autos in that list, too.

The big three’s challenge is to grow their market beyond the loyalists without losing the “dependability” factor they all ride on. Tiny tinker-toy autos are a hard sell to big truck Americans, but to get back on track their cars must reflect America’s changing needs. Wait, they need to be ahead of our needs. Do you want to drive a rock?

A good product sells itself &#151 at least that’s what the Sham Wow! guy keeps saying. Today, Sham Wow! is the Big Idea, and your paper towel companies are the big three. The old-guard v. new thinking game is going to the smart thinkers, the doers and our homemade cars just aren’t cutting it. Damn that’s depressing.

More: “Should the Big 3 Sell Cars for “Nothing” to Resolve Cash Needs?