Car advertising: can you shift all that metal and build a brand at the same time?

Lord Leverhulme of Lever Brothers fame is credited with saying “Half of my advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.'” Applied to car advertising I would venture it is more like 70/30.

Jerry Judge has written an interesting piece here regarding the approach most car manufacturers take advertising their products. Jerry’s point is about the ‘comfort zone’ they tend to gravitate towards, i.e. the lingering camera following a car navigating bendy roads in an attractive location. As he suggests, a cliché all too easy to forget.

The wider point I’ve never understood is the general lack of consistency from campaign to campaign. As a devoted petrol head I genuinely can’t recall 90 per cent of car advertising, it all merges in to one big set of images, with the exception of a few.

Given that most people change their cars between three and five years it begs the question of target audience at any point in time. In the trade they talk about ‘shifting the metal’ given that the factory is busy churning out vehicles continuously that need passing on to new car buyers. So the target audience is the 0.3 per cent or so of the population considering buying a car this month, let alone the three per cent or so in a full year? Conversely, this month 99.7 per cent of the population will not be buying a new car. On average, flattening out the annual new UK car registrations of two million across twelve months, about 167,000 new registrations will be logged in January; and my guess it will be less as people wait for the new registration year in March.

Returning to advertising, this suggests almost all of the money spent is focused on today, chasing a tiny percentage of the population. This might explain the lack of consistency from one ad campaign for model A to another campaign for model B both from the same parent marque. It must mean most advertising is ‘disposable’; it serves its purpose for a short time and then is binned. With little or no enduring equity in the brand.

Very few campaigns appear to sustain a longer-term thought, both linking individual model advertising and building longer term propaganda for the marque. BMW did for many years with ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine,’ Audi does with ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ but these are both exceptions to the rule. VW recently adopted ‘Das Auto.’ All German, interesting.

The point Jerry Judge makes is about being brave and being different; I agree with him but I would add the point about consistency. MINI pulls off both, all down to excellent art direction which they follow through on to their website seamlessly. I can’t recall anything of note from Ford/Vauxhall/Renault/ et al.

I don’t believe anyone buys a new car on a knee-jerk basis. It’s a big old purchase and surely we all think about it for a long time? We form our shortlist way before we are in the zone of parting with our hard-earned cash. The role of the marque must be a big consideration that influences our feelings and thinking. As an example, Jaguar launch the F Type this year and they have been sending me email updates for at least a year. Whetting my appetite based on the empirical evidence that Chinese water torture works.

Having worked with several car manufacturers I totally get the serious commercial issues surrounding the management of mega-investment in manufacturing and stock. However I also feel the urgent drives out the important when it comes to the longer term brand management of the marque. Advertising is a good barometer of the balance between brand management and sales management.

You May Also Like

About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.


  1. Im sure that attributing the 50% quote to Lord Leverhulme is part of the Great British tradition, but it is equally attributed to American John Wanamaker. I guess this means that 50% of the people using the quote are right; the trouble is nobody knows which 50%. I have not been able to Google conclusive evidence pointing one way or the other. Wikipedia attributes both…

  2. As one would expect, I’m in “violent agreement” with Paul. Put aside my hypothesis and concentrate on his economic logic and you get to the same place. So where’s the thinking in the car companies?

  3. @Maarten… Actually, it was Hitler. He also said… “Next time back… No more Mr. Nice Guy!” He said it on “AdScam” on a Wednesday, which as everyone knows is Hitler Day. Not to be confused with Fridays, which are always Kate Moss days. Preferably naked.
    Cheers/George “AdScam” Parker

  4. For the record Maarten is correct about John Wanamaker. However his original quote has been lifted quite a few times since the end of the 19th century.