The Czech brand's new advertising is as quirky as ever, says Lucy Aitken

From body shots that teeter on the verge of pornography to yet another hairpin bend, the clichés of most car advertising don't come cheap: £678m was spent in 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research. Like a sunroof or tinted windows, a cute narrative is an optional extra: a couple arguing over directions, a dorky dad making a prat of himself, or a loveable brat being mischievous.

But, in typical Skoda fashion, the latest ad for the Fabia vRS features the frankly bizarre sight of an animated trouser-press chasing a mugger through the streets of Los Angeles. The tagline is: "Practical and exciting. Don't see that very often." A second ad, which breaks at the end of March, advertises the Octavia 4x4. An overweight gymnast performs some impressive acrobatics and the observation follows: "Big and agile. Don't see that very often."

What's unusual about these adverts is that there isn't a hint of irony. Where's the tongue-in-cheek, self-mocking defensiveness that we've come to associate with Skoda in such lines as "It's a Skoda. Honest", "It might earn you more respect than you think" and "It's a Skoda. Which, for some, is still a problem"?

Since Volkswagen took over Skoda in 1991, there have been huge improvements to the cars. But at the turn of the millennium, Skoda still faced an image problem. It didn't appear to make any difference that the Fabia was named car of the year by What Car? in 2000.

Unfortunately, Skoda's past was coming back to haunt it. In the 1970s, it had been associated with poor-quality Czech imports in the UK, and even by the 1990s research by Millward Brown showed that 60 per cent of consumers still wouldn't consider buying one. So Skoda's advertising agency, Fallon, confronted the prejudice.

Three self-deprecating TV ads based at a car plant showed a security guard, a supervisor and a visitor unable to equate Skoda with style. Post-campaign research by Millward Brown showed that 79 per cent of consumers believed that Skodas were better than they used to be and Skoda sales soared from 29,255 in 2000 to 36,053 in 2001. Skoda started to enjoy perpetuating the joke rather than the being the butt of it: a direct marketing campaign sent a Skoda badge through the post and invited potential customers to "live with it" for a while. But after hitting a high in 2002, the brand suffered slight sales dips in 2003 and 2004, albeit by just a few hundred units.

In 2004, a total of 35,029 Skodas were sold, giving the brand a 1.4 per cent market share. Skoda responded with an advertising campaign suggesting that Skoda drivers were free-thinkers who relished striking out against convention. Showing people mimicking each other, the ad commented: "Funny how we all copy each other sometimes. Who says we have to?"

The latest ads shift the focus again. Mary Newcombe, the head of marketing at Skoda UK, says: "What we've heard from our customers and retailers is: 'We understand you make good cars, so stop putting yourself down.' "

Laurence Green, a partner at Fallon and a planner on the Skoda account for five years, says: "Fabia and Octavia are hero products. You could drive the Fabia to work on Monday, pick up your granny from church and then have a slightly more exhilarating ride, hence it's practical and exciting. And the Octavia is a big car with fantastic handling: you know you're not driving a boxy old Volvo Estate - it's both big and agile."

Green thinks there's a new danger facing the brand. "Now that The Sun no longer talks about Skoda steering wheels falling off, the new peril is that the cars will become invisible. That's why we fixed on cars that are heroes rather than doing hollow brand advertising."

The new ads aim to persuade people considering a Skoda into buying one. Or, as Newcombe puts it: "We're selling excellent value cars and we want to give customers positive reasons to buy."

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