Car ad campaigns find way to make their marque

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CAR manufacturers will spend pounds 560m on advertising this year - a great deal of it going this month, for the introduction of the M-registration vehicles.

But since so few commercials stand out from the crowd, car companies are beginning to question how much of that advertising budget is well spent.

A typical car commercial will focus on a sleek, shiny saloon cruising through spectacular scenery, backed by classical music to emphasise the brand's sophistication.

Douglas Thursby-Pelham, theclient services director at Publicis, the advertising agency that handles the Renault account, says: 'Car advertisements are by and large moving brochures with endless shots of the product from very conventional angles. They usually feature smug, self-satisfied people driving through the Lake District, with the inevitable voice-over talking about the car's special features.'

Neil Christie, board account director at TBWA, which works on Nissan's advertising, agrees: 'Car advertising is not distinguished by its exciting creative solutions,' he says.

But he adds: 'In an increasingly competitive market some are trying a more interesting route.'

Among those taking a new approach is Mazda. Its latest television campaign by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury attempts to involve the viewer. In the first advert, the volume is lowered and viewers are instructed to turn it up if they are interested. Mazda's point is that it does not have to shout about its products. In the second, viewers are instructed to video the ad, then rewind it so that they can read messages flashed on to the screen about the car's features.

While the ads certainly stand out, they have come in for a degree of criticism. One creative director of a rival agency says: 'They are just gimmicky for the sake of it. I thought my TV was on the blink.'

Graham Bednash of HHCL denies the ads are just a gimmick. 'All the big players can afford to spend millions of pounds. They just throw money at advertising, but Mazda is trying to involve consumers.'

In a bid to make their commercials memorable, a growing number of car companies are emphasising cultural associations with their country of origin. Perhaps the most notable of these is Hyundai. Its ad agency, Leagas Delaney, had to address two problems: first, that most consumers did not know anything about Hyundai; and second, those who did knew it was South Korean and were fearful about the marque's performance.

The television ad questions British attitudes to products made in South Korea, and is quite unlike any other car commercial seen in the UK. Michael Tack, board account director, says: 'We had to remove prejudices and fears about Hyundai's origins.'

Others use a more subtle approach to promote their national characteristics. Renault's advertisements are essentially French in character with their 'Nicole' and 'Papa' characters. And the upmarket Renault Laguna plays on the stereotype of the French as great lovers. The scenario involves a handsome man picking up a succession of beautiful women in his equally beautiful car. But all is not as it appears. He is, in fact, taking them to a surprise party for his wife.

Mr Thursby-Pelham says: 'We are not trying to signal France, but we are not trying to hide it either. Renault is sleek and stylish, which is how the French themselves are perceived. There is a sense of joie de vivre that we are bringing out in the ads.'

TBWA's Neil Christie says that the use of national characteristics depends on where the advertiser is based and what it is trying to do. 'Germany is associated with engineering and with quality. BMW ads have a Teutonic steeliness to them that reflects consumers' perceptions of German cars.'

He says at the other end of the scale, 'Proton bang on about being Malaysian, because people associate Malaysia with cheapness.'

Robin Wight, chairman of BMW's agency, WCRS, says: 'Germany is a country of hard values, of quality and precision. France has softer values. It's a sybaritic culture and, in a sense, the ads reflect some of those qualities. BMW ads are not about sunsets or stately homes. There is no borrowed interest, because we want to mirror the values of the BMW brand.'

(Photograph omitted)