I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure what the broader meaning of this is, but I do feel like there is some sort of bigger underlying message here. I’m thinking about the idea of comical self-effacement, and the role it once held in car advertising, and how it’s absolutely gone now. The truth is I miss it, and I feel like the lack of it does not speak well for the overall mentality of how we as people sell, buy and own cars.
In case you’re not aware of what I’m talking about, I’ll explain. It started (arguably, but probably not that much) with Doyle Dane Bernbach’s famous Volkswagen ad campaign in the 1960s and spreading to a number of other carmakers. This new approach to advertising was intelligent, straightforward, and often derived humor from some sort of honest self-deprecation, highlighting known traits in the car being advertised that were ostensibly less desirable, but actually worked to highlight the features of the car that were actually most likely to get it sold.
Here are some pretty famous examples:
The idea of a company showing their new car crushed into a cube or calling its little moneymaker a “lemon” is something I simply cannot imagine a modern carmaker ever agreeing to.
In the context of these ads, the self-owns make sense: the copy goes on to explain how VW’s insanely strict inspection system ended up producing higher-quality cars. The approach did assume the reader would read the fine print, but with images and headlines as shocking as those, they usually did.
And this wasn’t limited to Volkswagen; other companies, like Citroën, got into the game as well:
This ad is hilarious: Citroën is comparing their crude, clever, cheap 2CV to cars that clearly outclass it, but they’re doing it in ways that both good-naturedly poke fun at the 2CV (the top speed of 71.5 mph is not quick, but, yeah, it’ll smoke a Ferrari going 65) while simultaneously showing off what it does well (cheap, roomy, good enough!)
The self-deprecation made it to television commercials as well, in case you really didn’t trust people to read the small print, or, even, read at all. Here’s a Subaru Justy ad that pulls the same basic trick as that Citroën ad up there — compare a cheap car to a much more expensive car:
So, we see that yeah, you won’t beat a Porsche, but it’s way cheaper and you can beat Hyundais and Toyotas with your little 3-banger, CVT-equipped hatchback!
Subaru also had this odd ad that sort of mocked the Justy’s small size and perceived cheapness, but played up Subaru’s reputation and helped to cement the hatred of our extended families, especially ones with creepy identical twins:
I like how when this dude’s awful family finds it’s a Subaru, they take that as permission to just beat the shit out of the guy’s new car. You deserve better, Jerry.
Of course, VW had some fantastic self-deprecating commercials as well, like this famous Karmann Ghia one:
Now, to pull any of this off, a carmaker needs two things: self-confidence in themselves, and trust in the level of intelligence of their audience. As there are almost no modern car ads that indulge in any self-deprecation at all, I’m suspecting if one or both of those things is gone.
The closest that modern ads seem to be willing to tread to the idea of self-deprecation is the sort of lightweight ribbing at a company’s established reputation that we see in ads like this cloying Buick ad:
Buick trotted out this hokey shit as their Super Bowl ad, and there have been some follow-up ads like it: People can’t, somehow, believe that the car they see clearly badged as a Buick is, in fact, a Buick.
Sure, technically Buick is taking a dig at what they believe is their old perception as, I guess, a fussy carmaker for old people, but remember, the whole point of these ads stems from innumerable meetings where Buick PR people decided Buick needed an image makeover, so that old image isn’t anything they care about, anyway. They want it dead.
There’s no risk here, no real potential threat to a carmaker’s security or ego, because modern carmakers simply will not do that. Modern car companies are too insecure in their own images and don’t seem to trust the intelligence of consumers anymore. No one is willing to risk saying anything other than absolute, abject praise about their cars, or casting them as status symbols that serve to project how successful their drivers are.
And, look, I guess all that is fine, and I guess it sells cars, but I can’t help but miss an era when a carmaker didn’t have to always pretend to be perfect or ideal. Being willing to laugh at one’s self — even if it’s in the crude service of trying to manipulate people into buying something — is a disarming, appealing quality, one that works only with a little bit of trust and respect for the person at the other end.
Lots of current car ads are absolute ciphers, void of any tone or personality that could be seen to be polarizing in any way. Like this Chevy Blazer ad:
Do you remember what you just saw, at all? Ha ha! Trick question! You saw nothing!
There’s also moodier, more stylish approaches to nothingness, too:
Sure, there’s sort of funny ads out there or entertaining ones at least, but they pretty much never have anything to do with the car, just appropriating some other cultural whatever to flavor the brew.
Maybe honest, funny self-deprecation will come back in style one day? I’m not sure. I do know I might be more swayed by car ads if I knew they weren’t afraid to remind me that they weren’t perfect, but they still figured out how they made sense.
I mean, I suck in a lot of ways myself, so I can relate.