The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 2011 in Review

It’s nearly the end of 2011 and that means it’s time to critique OEM’s advertising.

There’s a plethora of car advertising every year, so the field is huge. But considering the billions of dollars the car companies collectively invest in advertising every year, it’s quite amazing that the not-so-great work outnumbers the great stuff. And it doesn’t matter which medium is used.

Let’s start with the good news, the brands who are doing some of the best work.

Audi of America is a stand out, with some of the most consistent on-brand messages in the industry. This is a brand that knows who it is, knows its audience and communicates in smart and entertaining ways.

One of my favorites was this TV commercial for the May launch of the A7, called “Spring Cleaning”

The humorous A8 campaign in late summer was also memorable. The ads used cultural examples of greatness as a metaphor to Audi’s top-of-the-line sedan, all themed “true greatness should never go unrecognized.”

My favorite of the trio was this one with NBA Coach Phil Jackson

Like all automotive advertisers, Audi plays the field in media. Earlier this year, Visibli research found that Audi USA’s Facebook page got more “likes” to postings on its page (or 225+ per 100,000 fans) translating to more popularity than second-place Justin Bieber and fourth-place Lady Gaga. That’s simply awesome!

Kudos to Audi CMO Scott Keogh and Audi’s main creative shop, Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco along with its social media agencies ZAAZ and M80.

Mazda is another brand deserving praise for knowing who it is and telling that story in interesting ways. Mazda kicked off a driver-focused blitz in April after what CMO Don Romano told me was the biggest outlay ever for consumer research. Mazda learned, among other things, that peoples’ perception of its quality was nowhere near reality. And Mazda wanted to broaden its appeal, ironically, even as Romano admitted “we don’t build cars for everyone.”

This “Chapter One” ad in the spring from new agency Team Mazda explains the brand’s culture of “if it’s not worth driving, it’s not worth building”

Mazda isn’t planning any specific ads on quality. Romano said quality is being communicated in the ads by explaining the engineering culture. Mazda has been consistent all year, moving the new ad theme to specific products, along with the new Skyactiv® Technology in this recent smart spot for the 2012 Mazda3, called “Prison Break”


In less than 2 months, this spot  already  attracted nearly 3 million views on YouTube.  WOW, very impressive!

Kia is another  2011 auto advertising standout. The  carmaker began the year with its over-the-top launch commercial from David&Goliath, Los Angeles, for the new Optima  during the Super Bowl

Epic indeed. And so unusual for the auto category. It was perfect for the huge audience of the Super Bowl’, where ho-hum ads simply don’t fly.

Accolades to Kia’s VP-Marketing Michael Sprague for also keeping the urban rapping hamsters in Kia Soul ads. The whimsical hamsters click with the Soul’s youthful target. Kia’s hamsters have gotten so popular since first bursting on the scene in 2009 that this year the ad mascots won Advertising  Week’s first-ever “Rookie of the Year” Award in Manhattan.

Not many carmakers were consistent in their advertising this year. Sadly, all three of Detroit’s automakers – General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group fell into that category.

At a time when GM has some of the most competitive products, they are simply not getting to the heart and soul of their brands. This situation is most evident at GM’s biggest brand, Chevrolet, which is now in the midst of a global agency review for its creative.

More than a year after Chevrolet rolled out its new ad “Chevy Runs Deep” ad theme from its new US shop, San Francisco’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, there’s too much slice-of-life advertising focusing more on owners than the brand soul, the products and features. All five of Chevy’s Super Bowl in-game commercials were of this genre. Ditto for this more recent one for the 2012 Cruze Eco

Every once in a while Chevy manages some very cool ads, like this one for its centennial called “Now & Then”

Every once in a while simply isn’t good enough.

When it comes to social media, Chevrolet has dialed up its presence significantly- to a point that’s nearing over saturation. Maybe that’s one reason why GM dropped its social agency, Big Fuel, and reassigned the work to each brand’s main creative shop.

Chevrolet isn’t alone here. As the head of one car ad agency told me: “we’re all jumping into social media, almost backwards,” just to be there and see what happens.

Ford really set the bar high in social media back in 2009 with its Fiesta Movement to pre-launch the small car. But this year’s online-only, social media blitz for the 2012 Focus with orange “spokespuppet” Doug fell flat. The campaign was too long – months and months- with dozens of videos. Doug had a big attitude and was quite obnoxious. Doug was the creation of Ford’s ad agency TeamDetroit in Dearborn, and director Paul Feig of NBC TV’s “The Office,” which I also don’t find amusing, but is a hit with younger audiences.

Doug was introduced in March at a press-conference

Sorry, but this press conference format is lame and one the Ford brand has used extensively all year in other ads for other models. Ford got into hot water for one of these commercials and online videos when actual F-150 owner, Chris, admitted he wasn’t going to buy from a car company bailed out by Uncle Sam.

Onto Chrysler Group, which started the year with a bang with the unprecedented two-minute Super Bowl commercial for the 300 with Eminem. The “Imported From Detroit” spot not only got tons of buzz, it won four Gold Lions at the international ad festival at Cannes- no small feat.

Who would have guessed it would take a Frenchman, CMO Olivier Francois, working at an Italian-owned car company and a Portland, Oregon ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy, to nail the Motor City attitude?

But when it came to launching Fiat in the US, Francois’ big deal with Jennifer Lopez is a flop of epic proportions.

Another dud comes from Toyota Motor Sales USA’s Scion arm. Scion really blew it with this ridiculous blitz from ATTIK in San Francisco for the limited-edition “High Voltage tC.”

Thankfully most of the “episodes” with this lame Zeus spokesman were online.

The Toyota brand also had its share of missteps this year. One of the most disappointing campaigns, from Saatchi & Saatchi in Los Angeles, was for the Venza. The ads show self-absorbed twenty-something children “fretting” (needlessly it turns out) about their aging parents. Unfortunately the ads are more about the people than the vehicle.

What were they thinking?

Ditto for Nissan, with this corporate branding attempt that hit the airwaves in August with the explanation “to become a more responsible car company, Nissan developed a more responsible ship”

This commercial is wrong on so many levels. A minute is just too long. Plus, it’s BORING. Trying to compare Nissan’s sleek ship design to its car styling is a stretch and downright silly. Since this spot features the head of design in Japan, ya gotta figure either the the guys in the homeland pushed through this “Big Idea” or Nissan’s USA team in Nashville decided to kiss some, err… rings.

Then, there’s Honda, which along with its sibling Acura, has put out too many so-so ad messages for a long time. Like, why is it a great idea to use these weirdo characters in launch ads for the 2012 Civic

Oh!! There’s 5 different versions of the Civic- for 5 different kinds of buyers. Get it? Admittedly we’re not in the age group Honda is targeting here. But zombies and ninjas? Really? They are just too creepy.

By the way, a top ad exec at one of the major car companies (who will remain nameless) recently told me he predicts Honda will have an agency review in 2012.

My favorite Honda ad in 2011 from its longtime agency, RPA in Santa Monica, with this cheeky :30 ad starring Mario Andretti called “Walk Around”

Now this is a fun spot, even if just to introduce a promotion. Would have liked to have seen more of Mario and the fun-to-drive aspect of the 200-mpg Civic coupe instead of this one-time ad.

Finally, there’s VW, now and then over the years one of the best auto advertisers in the industry. Deutsch Los Angeles is agency of record.

The minute-long, 2012 Passat teaser commercial, called “The Force,” that debuted during the Super Bowl was cute and now has an eye-popping 44 million views on YouTube.  Simply amazing.

But Deutsch missed the mark with this online “VP Academy” series with Saturday Night Live comedian Bill Hader, SNL writer John Mulaney and VW product specialist Danielle Gumro. Judge for yourself

This 2012 Beetle commercial is catchy with Shirley Ellis singing her “Clapping Song.” While the ad is quirky and leaves viewers with with good feelings, what does it really tell us about the car?

And, why does VW feel the need to hit Americans over the head with both “German Engineering” AND “Das Auto” at the end of so many commercials? Do they think we’re THAT dumb that we can’t connect “Das Auto” to Germany?

Auto advertising is not rocket science. It is a combination of art and science. The science is formulating the right strategy after doing the best research and reading the results correctly. The art part is much trickier because sometimes it’s just a gut feeling knowing what’s right for your brand.

Doing both isn’t easy, or great advertising would be the norm for the entire industry.

Better luck next year!

MAKING TRACKS: Charlie Metzger has moved on. After 11 years at McCann-Erickson’s suburban Detroit office, he is now Exec VP-CMO at The Palace. Good luck, Charlie! Sounds like a fun gig.

I’d like to thank all of my readers for taking the time to visit my blog. Wishing you all a happy, healthy & prosperous 2012!

You can follow me, Jean Halliday, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

On Twitter, I’m @jhal2001

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