One more ad for the road

Car companies are spending like there's no tomorrow - maybe because there isn't.
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The Independent Online
Usually the bane of the sporting viewer's life, television advertisements have come as a blessed relief to England cricket fans during this summer's Test series against New Zealand. Given the habit of the home side's batsmen to depart in rapid succession, the retail therapy on offer after the fall of every wicket has turned out to be a brave attempt to distract the audience from its gloom.

If the ads have the desired effect on disaffected cricket followers, the product likely to be freshest in their minds is cars.

This summer, Ford, Renault, Vauxhall and Volkswagen have bought up much of Channel 4's airtime as part of a dramatic increase in their advertising expenditure. According to figures from ACNielsen Media International, which provides advertising measurement services, annual spending by the top 10 car makers on ads has jumped by more than 10 per cent in the last 12 months to a staggering pounds 475m.

With TV exposure comprising most of this total, couch potatoes will have little difficulty identifying these big spenders. Volkswagen's promotions, designed to appeal to the unpretentious driver, have run up a pounds 56m annual ad bill. Ford, which has resurrected Steve McQueen's performance in the 1960s thriller Bullitt, has spent more than pounds 62m in the last year. Vauxhall's "Raising the Standard" campaign has cost almost pounds 72m. And top of the list is Renault, which has sold its people carrier with a quirky rehash of the famous alpine finale from the Sound of Music. This forms only part of a pounds 74m ad blitz.

Channel 4 is reluctant to crow about its lucrative appeal to motor makers, which covet the young, upwardly mobile males who comprise cricket's core audience. But these ads have vindicated the broadcaster's decision to scoop Test coverage from the BBC. National newspapers also report strong demand for advertising space, and the industry's explanation is simple.

"There is intense competition in the UK," says a spokesman for Ford. "It is one of the most competitive car markets in the world."

The message is a familiar one: too many cars chasing too few punters. Al Clark, at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), cites the increasing range of brands as evidence of a more congested market. Peugeot and Ford, with the 206 and Focus models respectively, are just two firms with a new name to plug. Technological advances have allowed manufacturers to produce a range of models from the same platform, and every brand needs its own publicity campaign. "People are demanding as many variants as possible," says Mr Clark. "Motoring journalists are having to spend their whole time at product launches."

He also refers to the fact that new car registrations are now coming into effect twice a year. Uncertain of the impact of this innovation, manufacturers have been anxious to prepare by maximising their exposure.

All this uncertainty, coupled with complex demands from customers, suggests that the ad blitz is a desperate measure. After all, this is an industry that has undergone a spate of mergers and takeovers in the last few years as it struggles to cope with chronic over-capacity. Tie-ups between Daimler and Chrysler and then Nissan and Renault resulted from the realisation that the world has more car makers than it needs.

In addition, the UK car industry is the subject of an investigation by the Competition Commission following a complaint by the Office of Fair Trading. Manufacturers reject the charge that British consumers are forced to pay exorbitant prices for vehicles compared with continental shoppers.

"It is not the case that prices will come into line," says a Ford spokes- man. He points out that in March 1996 the UK was the second cheapest market in Europe. "Since then the pound has strengthened by 25 per cent," he says. "The difference is down to the exchange rate."

But many industry analysts, confident that a gap does exist, believe UK prices will converge with the rest of Europe. John Lawson, automotive analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, says: "There is not much evidence yet of prices coming down, but weakness in UK car prices in general is partly due to greater awareness of the gap with the rest of Europe. The Rover 75, for example, was launched at a price commensurate with what it is sold for in Europe." Consumers have already cottoned on to the discrepancy and are starting to pop across the Channel for a new car.

The long-term picture may be gloomy, but there is evidence that the ad blitz reflects a motor industry making hay while the sun shines. Recent figures from the SMMT showed that June's new car registrations were up almost 16 per cent from the year before. The industry puts this down to a plethora of cheap deals, but Mr Lawson has a different explanation: "At the moment, the UK is a good place to increase market share."

The assumption is that the high prices here make selling cars a very profitable business. Consumer confidence has flowed as recessionary fears have ebbed. Sure enough, the SMMT figures suggest that the marketing push is having the desired effect on consumers.

Far from an act of desperation, the current advertising blitz could be a celebration.

HARD-DRIVING ADS

Kevin King, who helped create the current Ford Puma advert, gives his verdict on five of the car ads that have clogged our screens this summer. He works for Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency.

FORD PUMA

Steve McQueen is shown negotiating the tight streets of San Francisco.

"Previously, coupes like the Puma were thought of as the hairdresser's sports cars. Ford had created a proper sports car and it needed someone of McQueen's credibility to endorse it."

RENAULT SCENIC

A parody of the final scene of the "Sound of Music" in which the car slowly slips down the hill.

"The point is to talk about 'changing the scenery'. They have tried to present general values of multi-activity vehicles in a tongue-in-cheek way."

PEUGEOT 306

The son tries to run away from the father to avoid marathon training.

"This is the latest in a series of ads in which what you thought you saw didn't happen. The ads are highly sensual to show drivers as people living life to the full even though they have children."

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF

A series of characters are shown, from an "intellectual" reading in a cafe to a VW driver "going to the shops".

"This is a case of VW understatement. Golf has been a counter-culture car, avoiding some of the obvious cliches. While other products are status symbols, the Golf will just do its job, reliably."

HONDA CIVIC

Three Swindon boys discuss their career plans, with one ridiculed for choosing a job which would not involve driving a Honda.

"This has followed other campaigns which have tried to make people who buy fleets feel they are still investing in the UK. I just feel people understand that in an era of multi-sourced cars, where they are made is less relevant."

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