By Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
Car commercials can be stereotyped into two categories.
If we're talking local car dealership, it usually includes an older gentleman with a slimy fresh haircut and a suit that's 2 sizes too big, some sort of jingle that sounds like it was written by Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, and either a cute little kid or the most attractive relative or employee at the dealership.
If we're talking mainstream corporate car commercial, you expect rolling, windy roads, either in a snowy mountain or next to an ocean, hyperdramatic music occasionally with deep and ominous tones, quick cuts of slow motion details, and a calming baritone voice telling you how the car is such a good value or will give you more than what you're expecting. And then it'll tell you how "attractive" the lease rates are or how much bonus cash you're going to be saving. If you're lucky, you might see a narwhal doing acrobatic flips in the background or bald eagles doing a mating ritual mid-air.
Both of these models are archaic, and car companies have realized that. There have been a multitude of self-aware advertisements that still include those usual elements and then poke fun at them (sort of funny, but still makes the audience watch the typical commercial!). Ironically, some companies like Hyundai have even been making fun of what a "same old, same old" commercial looks like for a decade already by ragging on other markets (in this case, a 1993 commercial with Charles Barkley):
Most recently, the car commercial world has really started to shift. Sure, there are still the usual boring spots, but they're finally pulling out one important piece of the car buying experience and extrapolating it to a much more relatable level.
That piece is emotion.
It's a word that manufacturers already use a ton. "This car uses such emotional design language" is pretty much the most popular phrase in describing a vehicle these days. It's rare to see a press release on a new car without that word popping up somewhere, which, in turn, has also made it the most annoying word in the auto industry. It's just become super sweeping and is way too generic. Is that Corolla really emotional? Is it? really?
Everything is technically emotional. By definition, you see something, like a car, and you have a judgement or reaction about it. You see that Jaguar and you feel a type of way, whether that's bored, wowed, intrigued, happy, or sad. That's an emotion (Merriam-Webster: a state of feeling). But that's where the commercials are separating now.
Instead of just having a car on screen and expecting/forcing a reaction, the newest commercials are painting a story for the cars; they're giving them personality traits, and they're blending the cars into everyday life situations with a small tie-in. Most of the commercials are making it more and more difficult to even identify a car is being sold, until you reach the last few seconds. Subaru started doing this a few years ago with its Carmichael Lynch "Love" ads, like this recent "First Date" commercial:
Is there a car? Yes. There is. But is the commercial about a car? No. In reality, it doesn't have anything to do with the car. It's about love and passion, and the various stages of your life, all things people can relate to in one way or another. People remember their first dates when they watch this commercial and it gives them the warm fuzzies all up in their guts. And by association, the brain connects that to Subaru, who forces the connection to these situations by saying, "I may not know where the road will lead, but I'm sure my Subaru will get me there." Love. Happy feelings. Longevity. Reliability. Connection. Boom. This campaign, among other things has helped Subaru achieve record sales numbers.
Now, the majority of the Subaru campaign still shows plenty of the cars the company is highlighting throughout most of the commercials. This year proved that many companies aren't even making that a huge focus anymore. The Maserati Ghibli, Chrysler 200, and Hyundai Genesis were all perfect examples. The Maserati spot is essentially about an underdog story, the 200 is about the prideful beating heart of America, and the Genesis is about father-son relationships. The Ghibli doesn't show up until the 70-second mark of a 90-second commercial. A car isn't mentioned in the 120-second Chrysler commercial until the 50-second mark. And the Genesis doesn't show up in full until the 20-second mark of a 30-second commercial. It's almost like the companies don't want you to know it's a car commercial right off the bat. Hmmm...
Why is that? It goes back to what we were talking about in the first couple paragraphs. People have been conditioned to expect a bad or boring commercial when a car pops up on the screen. So, they bury them and grab your attention in a different manner. The commercials are still often dramatic, but they're dramatic in a fashion that you can connect with on a personal level. People aren't going to be like, "man, did you see that Kia commercial. Those lines were so emotional!" But they might say, " dude, did you catch that commercial with Morpheus from the Matrix? I used to love those movies. I think it was for Kia, and it actually looked pretty nice." There's a different type of appeal at play that really has nothing to do with cars at all. That's the new draw. This transformation has been happening for about half a decade, but now more than ever the commercials aren't about the vehicles. They're about connection at a more base level, and that's what humans respond to.
Maybe it's time we add a third (positive) stereotype to describe car ads.