Car companies are hitting the Net at high speed to escape censure

The lack of restrictions on what can be shown is a nightmare for the Advertising Standards Authority
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They say rules are there to be broken. And nowhere is such an adage more likely to be followed than in adland, where ingenuity in circumventing such obstacles is widely seen as a virtue.

In the latest example, motor industry marketeers have dumbfounded the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) by going online to promote the speeding dream machines that are, in effect, banned from being shown on television commercials.

The superb BMW series of films, collectively titled The Hire and exclusively run on the internet, featured speeding cars at virtually every turn. While at pains to stress that the films - one of which starred Madonna and was directed by her husband, Guy Ritchie - were exactly that, and not ads, most aficionados are in agreement that they highlighted the power, speed and sexiness of BMWs in a way that they could never emulate on the tightly-regulated box.

Shaun McIlrath, creative director of the advertising agency Heresy says: "More and more car manufacturers are turning to the internet to market their products because they can showcase them in a way that better reflects their attributes. While the ASA codes are not that prohibitive, they certainly do not encourage or even allow the main demonstration of automobile's oft most sought-after attribute - its speed." Indeed, the rules state that "advertisements for cars, motorbikes or other automotive products must not encourage or condone fast or irresponsible driving nor refer to speeds over 70mph".

But it is not solely a problem of content that is encouraging more and more car marketers to spend so much creative time and talent on the internet ads and websites. The editor of New Media Age, Michael Nutley says: "Research has shown that around 70 per cent of people thinking of purchasing a car look online. The ease of access, either at work or home, and the ability to shop around quickly and relatively anonymously has certainly incentivised many to use the Net." McIlrath agrees and adds that women have probably benefited most from the internet. He says: "Advanced product information is no longer the sole reserve of hairy-arsed blokes who sit on the loo with 20 copies of AutoBoffin. Anyone can access detailed facts online and feel far less intimidated when approaching dealerships."

Adherence to the ASA code could have brought about the indistinguishable car ads that we see on TV - that, and the globalisation of ad campaigns, where one creative execution has to service every market. Chris Hughes, creative director of the marketing agency WAA says: "TV ads for cars have become virtually impossible to differentiate. So homogenised and formulaic have become the executions that the consumer finds it hard to make an informed decision based on the brand advertising."

Most TV car ads adhere to the doctrine of ensuring both an emotional and practical attachment can be made between the viewer and the car - the left brain, right brain analogy. So a beautiful backdrop, where the car meanders round a mountainside or across a desert, is mixed with a fact-and-figure session. Either way, the ads are designed to encompass as wide and disparate an audience as possible. The internet offers the antithesis of this. Devoid of restrictions and seen as the subversive new boy on the block, it offers car manufacturers the opportunity to talk one-to-one to their consumers.

Hughes says: "People do feel more comfortable with their computers because they control them; they can search according to their wishes and interests. If they don't like something they can look elsewhere. TV is a one-way medium, you just watch."

Julian Ansell, Ford's online communications manager, says: "Launching new Ford vehicles on the internet is increasingly important for us, and has been since the current Fiesta was introduced in 2001. Our small car range, which appeals to Ford's youngest customers, has been promoted very effectively on micro sites, which typically go live prior to the start of print, TV and radio advertising."

Companies such as Ford have launched internet advertising before their traditional media campaigns. McIlrath of Heresy says: "The internet represents the most radical development in advertising since the introduction of the television. As TV broadcasting echoed its era, one of consumer deference, so the internet reflects our era - an era of reference." He notes that many sites allow the user to personalise their potential new car while online. Colours and interiors can change, accessories can be added, and costs analysed.

Matt Cowen, director of Rare Content, a web marketing agency, believes that it is the sense of community and the intimate feel that the internet allows that gives it unique attachment in the minds of the consumer. He says: "People enjoy the fact that they can constantly go back to the sites and find out more detailed information about what they are thinking of buying. It also allows the 'petrol heads' or other such communities to really delve deep into a product through using the links available to other micro sites."

Aside from the internet, manufacturers are also using product placement on the screen, such as in the James Bond films, to show the wilder side of their vehicles. Skidding on ice, careering down one-way streets and riding roughshod over fields would send shivers down the spine of the ASA. The association's policy on off-road driving is that aggressive driving should not be shown; on power and speed that there is no suggestion that fast driving is exhilarating or a competitive sport; and on racing and rallying that there are no emotive references to the power of a rally car that shares a name with a road car.

It used to be the case that every significant car launch had to start with the advertising break in the News At Ten. But as Simon King, director of Pure Media, a media planning agency says: "Times have changed. News At Ten, apart from being 30 minutes later now, only reaches half the people it did ten years ago, down from over six million viewers to three million."

The downward trend looks set to continue. As McIlralth says: "TV is still the dominant medium for brand building, but the new boy on the block offers a level of involvement and deregulation that TV can only dream of. The future will bring convergence and, in turn, regulation but today, in advertising terms, it is the wild frontier."