One reason to switch on TV at the moment is to have a ringside seat in the battle to sell cars. Not that it’s a battle between car manufacturers. All cars have a wheel at each corner, and an engine just like they did a hundred years ago. What’s new is that we are seeing a battle between advertisers, and the prize is everlasting replays in the advertising hall of fame.
One of the biggest prizes in the advertising hall of fame is who will create the Silk Cut moment for cars. The Silk Cut moment is when an advert is so clever and original that it endures even the demise of the product itself. In the case of Silk Cut it was cigarettes that were fast reaching their sell-by date. Now, every time a programme appears about the latest smoking ban, the Silk Cut advert is wheeled out, along with the Marlboro Man advert, as examples of the late period in cigarette advertising.
Both these great advertising campaigns unconsciously signalled two things, desire for the product, and the end of the line. Saatchi and Saatchi knew that the Silk Cut adverts would be shown repeatedly whenever the controversial subject of smoking was discussed, and advertisers took heed. That’s why we are witnessing a battle to provide the final word in car adverts.
Like tobacco, the car will be debated for many years for two reasons: health and the environment, and the prize to advertisers will be great. Car adverts, like cigarette adverts before them, have up till now been based on lifestyle. However, when advertisers turn to metaphor, for example, a long cut in a piece of purple silk, you know they are reaching out. You know they are desperate.
Silk Cut adverts showed the deeply slashed piece of purple silk in a variety of surreal situations and angles for many years. The ads ran from 1983 until 2003. It was no longer an advert that associated lifestyle with the product, and it revealed that advertisers quite rightly lacked confidence in a dangerous product. They no longer believed in it.
Of course, it’s too soon to claim that the car, like tobacco, is a product coming to the end of its long, unchecked run, that there will be health and environment warnings slapped on TV car adverts. No British scientist has been given the task of proving without doubt the link between the car and global warming, or the car and cancer, or the car and childbirth survival rates, or the car and flash flooding in the same way Sir Richard Doll was tasked with proving the link between tobacco and lung cancer.
But what a great prize for an ad agency to create the ad that will always be shown if and when an advertising ban on cars comes in. Documentary makers take note – each time you show a Silk Cut ad, you’re enticing a whole industry.
Ford’s Mondeo advert, Desire, shows carbon fibre replicas of last year’s models being lifted into the ozone by helium filled balloons. It’s a great visual representation of the end of the era of lifestyle-based car advertising. Car adverts based on carefree confidence will look as silly as Stanley Matthew’s endorsement of Craven A cigarettes after this.
Hence Desire’s morbid Donnie Darko soundtrack. If it sounds like a sad moment of something passing, that’s because it is meant to. Desire is directed by Philippe Andre. It’s produced by Ogilvy Advertising who: “have decades’ worth of experience and ability in creating, building, transforming and reinvigorating brands”. So why the balloons? Once again, when advertisers turn to metaphor, poets wake up. There is nothing more scary than coloured balloons lifting things away. That’s not a confident message about a product. That’s a nightmare. It reminds me that cars are ethereal, fragile and expensive products. It reminds me that cars are ephemeral, and for once, a car advert shows an unwanted transition: out with the old, in with the new.
Of course, it makes me want to go out and buy a new Mondeo. Of course it does. It’s a good advert. But what happened to Mondeo man? Is it no longer a tough, manly occupation to drive a car? Ogilvy are implying an end to the fun by sending out two signals just like Saatchi and Saatchi did with Silk Cut. One signal says buy the car, one says the fun is over.
No doubt Ogilvy hope it will be shown for many years, and that it becomes literally the final word in car advertising. After all, the prize is big, and the admen know the balloon has finally gone up for cars.