Lights, Camera, Action: What makes a good car advert?

We’ve all grown up watching them. Some have been funny. Some have been informative. Some have been hilarious. Some have been downright annoying. And some have led us to purchase that car. Yes, we’re talking about car adverts.

Around since advertising itself began to creep its way into our front rooms, the ultimate goals of car adverts are like any product being marketed – to raise awareness of the brand and its products, ideally leading to as many sales as possible.

It’s been debated for some time whether designing a successful advert is an art or a science, with the reality and answer as with most things, falling somewhere between the two extremes. As time has passed, marketing techniques have developed in conjunction with more savvy and aware customers, putting greater pressure on car firms and ad agencies to be as creative as possible to make their car stand out above the rest.

Early days

Early TV adverts were bold and direct

If we begin by looking back thirty years, it’s interesting to see how things have progressed. This 1980 offering to promote the Austin Metro is amusing for its crude and blunt direction, with your reaction likely to fall between admiring its strong nationalistic values or frowning at the borderline xenophobia. Fellow British manufacturer Triumph served up this effort in the 1980s to promote its Acclaim. If you can get past giggling at the serious narration and cheeky wordplay at the end, it’s interesting to note how these older car adverts very much focussed upon listing the practical benefits of the car, whereas today’s adverts focus more on the lifestyle and perception associated with a car.

It’s almost as if customers’ expectations have risen to the point where they expect high quality and performance in any car and are now looking for styling and the way it will make them feel as an influencing decision in their potential purchase.

Straplines

TV adverts have helped manufacturers reinforce their brand values

To underline the image and lifestyle manufacturers wish to associate with their brand, many have developed straplines to go alongside their cars. BMW have The Ultimate Driving Experience and Peugeot’s The Drive of Your Life followed along a similar vein. Audi’s Vorsprung durch Technik has become successful through repeated use since the 1970s, even if German friends have expressed to me that translated into English it makes no logical sense.

As a side note, Audi’s strapline was developed to tattoo in people’s minds that Audi was German and keen on the technology side of cars, after a period of confusion where many believed Audi to have been an Italian company (Ed – really?). TV car adverts featuring Audi and concluding with the Vorsprung durch Technik line have helped reinforce the image of Audi as being one of the most recognisable German brands in the world today.

Admittedly many of Audi’s adverts could never be classed as entertaining or witty, but they certainly hit the mark with their 2007 RS6 advert, where they compared their top level estate car to a bull. The car barely features in the clip, but the effect and image of the man taming the bull and then the RS6 prowling forward is a memorable one and reinforced the mean image of Audi’s RS division.

Music

Peugeot's advert for its 406 featuring M-People is one of the most memorable car adverts of all time

One way adverts become memorable in consumers’ minds even if the product is not remarkable, is the use of music. The music can be bizarre, catchy, irritating, popular or unknown but the main key is that it is memorable and synonymous with the car it is promoting.

One of the most successful examples of music use was the marriage between Heather Small’s vocals for M-People and Peugeot’s 406 for their 1995 advert, ending on the aforementioned The Drive of Your Life strapline. On the face of it, it seemed a bit cheesy to associate such a powerful song with an average car, but with the beautiful way the piece was shot, clever use of greyscale and the pairing of dramatic scenes on a par with the power of Small’s voice, the advert became arguably one of the most famous car adverts of the 1990s and remembered by many to this day.

More recently, there have been a plethora of tie ups between music artists and car manufacturers as artists look for additional revenue streams. Some ad-agencies have delved into the musical archives with great effect, as shown in this Daddy Cool themed song for the Vauxhall Zafira GSi, which whilst may be questionable lyrically given the subject, Vauxhall will now spring to many people’s minds upon hearing the song again. The same can also be said for Mint Royale’s tie up with VW for their “Singing in the Rain” commercial.

Graphical enhancement

Citroen won many fans for its clever and entertaining use of CGI for its C4 campaign

Media effectively communicating with its audience has benefited enormously from the relentless development of technology and the car advertising world is no different. Citroen’s C4 campaign received universal praise and viral acclaim with their dancing robot adverts shown here and here. Pairing up with two in vogue French house music producers, by using their soundtracks underneath the latest in 3D technology to parody their car as robots, the campaign got across the fun but extensively focussed technology side of the C4, such as its ESP, directional headlights and translucent dashboard features.

Another famous CGI clip from the noughties is Honda’s fabulous dominos advert. Using components from its cars, the 2 minute clip holds an incredible power to make you sit through to its conclusion. It became a huge hit through word of mouth and gave a bit of ‘cool factor’ to a company normally associated for churning out technologically impressive, if a little dull-around-the-edges cars.

Ford also got on the CGI bandwagon with their weightless cars video to promote their latest Mondeo. Featuring Fords from all ages floating around London, the subtle ambient music was the antithesis to Citroen’s high-energy approach with the C4 but proved equally effective.

Most memorable

Russ Swift did amazing things with the Rover Montego in 1988

When all’s said and done however, you can have the most creative 3D imagery, the most blistering soundtrack, the fastest car in its class, but it appears that without an injection of humour, a car advert will never be more than an interesting interlude during your favourite soap.

In 1988, famous stunt driver Russ Swift swung a Rover Montego of all cars around a car park lot (without CGI, naturally) displaying incredible levels of skill to keep the car facing the right way at all times. This not only became the talk of the week at the office water cooler, but also elevated Rover’s image at the time to one of cars that possessed great handling characteristics. It also thrust Swift into the limelight and has underpinned his reputation to this day. Check out Russ Swift speaking to Jeremy Clarkson and the advert itself here.

Another British manufacturer, Vauxhall, recently delved into creating a funny collection of adverts with their campaign based around two children acting like the parents to promote their Meriva and Zafira models. Whilst the children’s acting has become a marmite style love it or hate it affair, nobody can deny the advert and cars have become inked heavily in our minds.

The three stars of the biggest advertising campaign of the 1990's - Papa, Renault Clio and Nicole

Perhaps the car advert that most of us will remember best of all has to go to the French with their Renault Clio Nicole/Papa campaign. Based around a very simple hook of the relationship between a Father (Papa) and daughter (Nicole), the adverts placed these two individuals in amusing and confusing situations and were structured in such a way that every 30 second piece would always finish with Nicole shouting out to Papa and then vice-versa. The silly nature of each advert, the easy to recall catchphrase and various tempos of the regular soundtrack meant these fun bite-sized stories stuck in the heads of viewers and did wonders for the Clio’s image and sales. The most popular version of the Nicole/Papa series came when British comedians Vic and Bob parodied The Graduate to amusing effect. Ask anyone today about these adverts and they’ll probably immediately use the famous quote – they don’t make them like they used to, do they?

Final thoughts

BMW hired a big name for their blockbuster The Hire series

We’ve highlighted just some of the ingredients that go into making a great video and some of the manufacturers that exploited this to great effect, but we’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on what makes a great video, or more entertaining examples you think we may have missed.

Were you a fan of Renault’s Thierry Henry Va-Va-Voom campaign or Citroen’s Picasso graffiti advert? Do you prefer adverts as a one off or as part of a series like BMW’s Clive Owen led The Hire campaign or Mini’s Mini Adventure series?

What do you think is the most important element of a memorable car advert? Have you ever bought a car due to the strength of a strong advertising campaign? Get in touch and share your experiences.

Check out more video content on SkiddPlayer and look out on SkiddMark soon for when we analyse which manufacturers most successfully used videos during the 2010 Geneva Motor Show.