Running footage. That’s what they call those shots in car ads where the car slips around impossible, sunny s-turn bends. It’s usually shot through a distorting lens to make the car look lower, slimmer, faster – better. But only better if you live life looking through a weird lens.
Car clients love this footage because it means they can look at themselves “wearing their best clothes” and with a bit of music and a deep voiceover they can tell themselves what they want to hear. They can tell themselves that they are making a beautiful, superior product – a car unlike any other in the market. Which, unfortunately, is what every other car client wants to hear too. So they end up running ads that make them look exactly like their competitors. It’s the car ad ‘comfort zone.’ And it’s a symptom of fear.
But the trick is that it won’t seem that way. It won’t seem like a fearful decision. It’ll seem like a rational, studied, responsible decision.
The people making these decision are smart people. They probably – quite rationally – want to associate their product with unarguably positive things (like sunshine, beautiful views and uncrowded roads.)
And they have probably seen a lot of running footage ads in the past and, quite reasonably, think that this approach seems like a good, safe, bet. Other companies wouldn’t keep running these ads if they didn’t work, right?
All of this makes sense when you are sitting around a boardroom table with millions of dollars (and your job) on the line.
But the problem is, the ad isn’t going to be shown to a bunch of robots – positive input in, positive input out. It’ll be shown to people – highly complex, sensitive, easily bored, even more easily put-off, people. And one of the quickest ways to put people off is to treat them like they are stupid. And running a footage ad does just that – it assumes that people will unquestioningly buy up all that airbrushed done-to-death nonsense; buy it up all the way to the dealership where they will buy that particular brand of car.
Because they don’t need something to drive around idyllic s-curves on empty scenic highways. They aren’t planning on coming to a dramatic curving stop in a desert. And they don’t aspire to a cold, empty, do-nothing lifestyle. More likely, they are planning on commuting to work, picking up their friends, their dates, their kids, getting away for the weekend, and so on and so on. And doing these things in a vehicle that says a little something about who they are.
We want things that fit into our lives. And while our lives do include fantasies, the running footage fantasy is one of the most boring, outdated and over-simplified fantasies out there.
Not so long ago BMW reviewed their US ad business. Just before it was announced I vaguely noticed a ‘neutrality’ in BMW’s advertising. Less of an attitude and more of a double scoop of thoughtless vanilla. Its new agency seems to have perpetuated that. Mainstream neutrality. I forgot about this (as one does forget forgettable work) until last week, when I saw a Honda ad on TV. It reminded me that Honda is moving its huge account, which has been well handled in the US by the same agency for a long time.And remember that wonderful UK ad that cheerfully encouraged people to “hate something?”
I don’t know why Honda is moving its business, but if I had to, I’d guess that it’s because they’ve found themselves in a bit of a tough place and have lost their nerve. They’re heading for the ‘comfort zone.’ They’re heading for running footage.
Chrysler, when faced with really difficult trading conditions, ignored the comfort zone. They gathered their wits and looked their customers and dealers in the face. They succeeded in finding authenticity and drama in their own product.
No “comfort zone” for them. And guess what? Dollar for dollar they are doing better than their Detroit competitors. I know because the New York Times told me.
Here’s my question. If you were in the auto business and had to hire a marketing person, who would it be? Someone from BMW or Honda? Or someone from Chrysler? Running footage or authenticity? Bland conformity or vibrant personality? I know what I would do. But it’s easy for me. I work in a business called Fearless. We don’t do vanilla. We don’t run running footage. We aren’t in the business of repackaging old ideas. Old ideas that had a time and a place, but should have been retired long ago.