Cars and the Power of Advertising

Recently the McGill Daily and Concordia University’s The Link covered their back page with end of semester advertisements for the 2011 Kia Soul. Above a picture of the small SUV reads: “Like it and Win. Grad [Facebook] Contest.”

These two nonprofit, Left student papers are not alone in promoting this unhealthy, lethal, inefficient, and utterly unsustainable mode of transportation. Across the globe newspapers of all types are filled with odes to the private car. For every new vehicle sold today $630 is spent on advertising. In newspapers and magazines, on TV and radio, car ads are overwhelming. Moving beyond traditional car-drenched media the Wall Street Journal noted that, “car companies have been among the most aggressive marketers in trying out new advertising tactics.” Whether you’re at a party, online, at the mall, playing video games, at the movies or even writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility. Car advertisers have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness.

Cadillac developed a subtle “influencer” campaign where vehicles were loaned to CEOs, doctors, and other distinguished individuals. For its part, Honda took a more blue-collar approach to selling cars. The company’s PR department dispatched a team to pump gas at service stations, pass out popcorn at movie theatres, and offer aid in supermarket parking lots. These individuals all wore the company logo and could usually be found close to a car with the slogan “Helpful Honda”. Nissan came up with a more novel strategy. To promote the Altima, they deliberately ‘lost’ 20,000 key rings in bars, concert halls and sports arenas in seven major U.S. cities. Each ring had three keys and a tag that declared: “If found please do not return.” The Altima “has intelligent key with push-button ignition and I no longer need these.” A second tag was labeled “gas card” and offered the finder the chance to enter a competition with prizes ranging from free gas to a six-month subscription to Vibe magazine. This innovative marketing strategy followed on the heels of a campaign that hired actors to stand up in movie theatres and talk back to Nissan Altima commercials.

The automobile’s new 30-second spot is definitely the videogame. To promote its 2010 GTI hatchback Volkswagen created an iPhone and iPod Touch game. The game allowed players to send messages to competitors on Twitter and post videos of the game to YouTube. Volvo’s S40 model enjoyed so much advertising success from Microsoft’s ‘Rally Sport Challenge Two’ that the company used clips from the game to create a TV ad. Another example is the Dodge Caliber, which made paid appearances in Ghost Recon, Crackdown, and custom made four video games for its launch. Nissan, too, worked with Sony/EA to release a downloadable video game to coincide with the launch of its GTR race car. Similarly, Chrysler and Activision executives collaborated on American Wasteland, where 3D Jeep vehicles appear an average of 23 times every 20 minutes.

Most major auto companies have executives based in Los Angeles because new models increasingly rely on branded entertainment. Advertising Age summarized the industry’s position: “Automakers: Every car needs a movie.”

Released in July 2007, Transformers was a dream come true for GM. Bumblebee is a Chevy Camaro, Jazz a Pontiac Solstice, Ratchet a Hummer H2, Ironhide a GMC TopKick truck and Stockade a Cadillac Escalade. A number of other GM “car-actors” swept up supporting roles as well. Bob Kraut, GM’s director of brand marketing and advertising, was understandably pleased with the film. “The content is very good,” said Kraut. “The cars are integral to the story. They generate attention. It’s a story of good vs. evil. Our cars are the good guys.”

While bigger and better roles go to the car, the real action takes place behind the scenes. Be it a change in dialogue or camera angle, auto companies have taken an increasingly hands on approach to product placement. Some changes are subtle. In The Forgotten, for instance, Volvo slipped a line into the protagonist’s dialogue, identifying the brand as her car of choice. Other changes are less subtle. After a scene with an Audi was cut from Ironman, the car company’s multi-million dollar marketing campaign with the movie was thrown into doubt. “The solution: run a drawn out shot of an Audi Q7 sports utility vehicle being saved by Ironman, complete with a sustained full frontal of Audi’s 4-ring logo.”

Car companies are aware of the silver screen’s value and part with big bucks for permanent spots. Aston Martin paid $35 million to unseat BMW as the official car of James Bond. In a massive agreement with Universal Studios and NBC, Volkswagen spent an estimated $200 million to see its products in Universal Films and on NBC television.

Today’s car ads manipulate nearly every value, emotion and human desire. Be it safety, speed, security, rebellion, the status quo, environmentalism, serenity or the defiance of nature. There is no place the industry won’t go.

The automakers omnipresent advertising explains the private car’s immense cultural standing. Those of us who want a landscape more amenable to pedestrians, cyclists and trolley riders must challenge the promotion of a product many times more damaging than cigarettes. As with tobacco, car advertising should be steadily eliminated (and immediately appropriated). The dominant media, ad agencies and car-makers will no doubt resist bitterly so let’s build momentum towards this end by prodding media outlets with ethical advertising guidelines (campus newspapers, green groups etc.) to immediately ban car ads.

Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are authors of just released Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler [at] Read other articles by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler.