What crawls, cries, wets itself and sells cars (they hope)?

... the superbabe. Michael Streeter on the ever-younger models in the fickle world of car advertising
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The Independent Online
Babies have become kings of the road. Vauxhall, the car manufacturer which used Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista to sell its vehicles, has dropped the supermodel for the superbabe.

Instead of draping catwalk stars over its new range, Vauxhall is selling the Astra with a 60-second television commercial featuring what one advertising executive describes as a "baby rally". Following the Rover 400 "embryo" ad, that ends its run tonight, which compares the car's smooth ride to life in the womb, the industry could be seeing the start of a new trend in TV car adverts.

In the Vauxhall offering, hundreds of babies hear a baby "leader" - portrayed by one-year-old Connor Higley - gurgle demands for better safety, comfort and "room for hundreds of toys" as sub-titles roll on the screen.

Filming required some 2,000 infants, aged between nine and fifteen months. At one point 900 crying, bawling and gurgling babies were brought by their parents on to the stage where the rally was to be filmed. The parents were shown how to use specially-designed safety straps to tie the babies to their seats (this replaced Velcro used in smaller shots). A signal was given and the mothers disappeared for two and a half minutes while 10 cameras whirred into action, ensuring no second takes were needed.

The culmination is noisy acclaim for the final message, a picture of an Astra with the slogan that it is "first and foremost a family car".

So why would anyone risk the noise, smell and general chaos that such an unprecedented number of babies would inevitably bring?

Vauxhall's advertising agency was Lowe Howard-Spink. Its account director, Daryl Fielding, explained the strategy: "There was a decision to make a virtue of the Astra's appeal as a family car." Lowe Howard-Spink had also been responsible for the Vauxhall Corsa ad which starred the supermodels and was dropped after being criticised for its sexism.

Glamorous women have long been used to sell cars; witness Volkswagen's Paula Hamilton and Renault's stylish Nicole. But two years ago, the Advertsing Standards Authority gave car manufacturers new guidelines after complaints poured in.

Vauxhall maintained that its supermodel adverts appealed to women rather than men. Now the baby adverts are further proof of the change in the car market. Women make up 41 per cent of all licence holders, 66 per cent own their own car, and half of all new cars are sold to women. More importantly for the Astra, they dominate the family's choice of car.

Lowe Howard-Spink's creative team Charles Inge and Phil Dearman came up with the big baby experience. "They felt that the apotheosis of the family could be represented by babies, to give them a voice, asking for what they wanted in a car," said Ms Fielding. The result was what she describes as a "baby rally" but which others have unkindly described as a mixture of a Nuremberg rally and an old-style Soviet political conference.

Shooting with such tiny extras provided a logistical headache at the Three Mills studios in Bow, east London. The 2,000 babies, used over several days, whose parents were paid pounds 85, were found through agencies, radio adverts and word of mouth.

On the day the "crowd" scene was filmed 900 babies were needed. Tables for nappy changing were set up; a foam play area was built and extra catering facilities were laid on for the adults. Even this was not enough. The local Tesco branch soon sold out of sandwiches and soft drinks, and nearly ran out of nappies and rusks.

Back at the studios, 10 nurses, 10 firemen and a doctor stood by. Scores of bins were brought in to deal with the inevitable nappy mountain and safety barriers were installed to ensure no one got stampeded in a rush.

The key to the success of the filming was "military precision" said Ms Fielding. Some mothers later complained about the set, while others removed their crying babies before filming started. Ms Fielding says: "Inevitably with so many people present there was a lot of hanging about. You're bound to get one or two people fed up with waiting."

Dr Brian Young, a lecturer in media psychology at Exeter University and an expert on children in adverts, said he saw no great objection to the use of so many babies. "Basically it's the parents' responsibility putting the children in the advert."

Dr Peter Marsh, a social psychologist and expert in car advertising, thinks the ad "bizarre" and is not sure about its message.

He believes it might be using the "Bambi effect" which induces "caring and warm" attitudes by transferring the cuddliness of the babies to the car. "Perhaps the hidden agenda is that they are trying to impose on the Astra some cute qualities."

Whatever the psychology, Vauxhall are convinced they have got value for the estimated pounds 350,000 spent. As for selling more cars, says a spokeswoman for the ad agency, it's "too early to say".