Creative Trend: Rebels Without a Car

Auto ads tout the brand not the product
Often criticized for for relying too much on clichƒd photography of cars coasting down winding, wet mountain roads, several automotive ad agencies are switching gears, hoping to build stronger brand identities. How? They’re eliminating the autos from the ads.
One example is Campbell-Ewald’s estimated $50 million Chevrolet campaign, which broke a few weeks ago on network and cable TV.
The spots–which contrast Chevrolet’s passenger-car dependability with consumer frustration over data-eating computers and canceled plane flights–end with the comforting sound of a car engine starting up and the voiceover: “Don’t you wish everything was as dependable as a Chevy?” One commercial features old horror-film footage of people trying to escape unseen evils in their nonfunctioning vehicles–none of which are Chevys.
The purpose of the new movement, says Bill Ludwig, chief creative officer at the Warren, Mich., agency, is to be more relevant to consumers, especially in comparison to the warm and fuzzy advertising of the past.
But the Chevy ads are not the first time parent General Motors has gone the carless route. Recent Olympic ads from Berlin, Cameron & Partners in New York highlight GM’s support of Olympic athletes, focusing on track star Carl Lewis.
Other automakers have taken similar car-free approaches. Recent BMW ads from Publicis, New York, use only the German automaker’s familiar blue-and-white circular logo. In one spot, a blue-and-white Chinese yin-yang symbol transforms into a BMW logo, with the voiceover, “The perfect balance of luxury, performance and price.”
In addition, the last several campaigns for Mercedes-Benz from Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, have been light on car shots, relying instead on attention-grabbing images to peak viewers’ interest. One commercial shows a variety of familiar scenes, each with a slight twist–such as the Mona Lisa with a Cheshire-cat grin–to illustrate what a big difference a small detail can make.
Known in the past for only featuring car shots in its Dodge ads–usually on beautifully lit studio sets–BBDO, Southfield, Mich., has made a U-turn. Capitalizing on the car company’s signature use of the color red, quirky 30-second network and cable spots that broke late September feature everyday items–potatoes, fishing lures, clover, ants–to set up the new tagline: “Dodge. Different.”
In “Potato,” countless rows of spuds roll through a processing plant, up and down conveyor belts–that is, until a startling red chili pepper appears in the viewer’s field of vision. In “Clover,” sweeping camera shots zoom in and out of a field of green clover, finally focusing on one red-tinted leaf. “Ants,” the prototype spot, shows a line of brown ants mindlessly following one another through a tunnel, until a lone red ant breaks out of line and goes its own way.
The ads are a “metaphor for nonconformity,” says executive creative director Dick Johnson. They convey that the Dodge brand is different, in part by doing a different sort of car advertising.
“We don’t do ‘lifestyle’ ads,” Johnson continues. “You won’t see people in [Dodge commercials]. We are not about characterizing our buyers. Our ads are strictly product-driven.”
The spots for DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge are also unique because there’s no running voiceover, just dramatic music meant “to be unusual enough that you have to look up,” Johnson says.
Despite the unorthodox approach, BBDO creatives had little trouble developing a variety of executions with the carless theme, Johnson says. “There was something about the nature of the exercise that inspired everyone,” he explains.
That’s what happens when you’re breaking new ground.