Why Automotive Advertising Is All Wrong

Compare a Ford corporate ad...

Compare a Ford corporate ad...

Do you believe advertising?

TV advertising has less effect on me every day. Heck, I worked as a creative director at an ad agency, and I still don’t trust 90 percent of the ads I see. This is because companies don’t seem to sell their best attributes anymore – they’ve turned to using tactics designed to sell product regardless of how far the truth is stretched.

Advertising for the auto industry is especially complicated, because it seems to have its own set of rules. How can any company properly advertise something that has no real set price and many different features that appeal differently to many different people? It’s a tall, tricky order, and I think it’s being done wrong for these reasons:

1. The price can’t be clearly stated
Consumers are confused and on guard right away, because we know a car’s price is never set in stone.

  • We know the price the manufacturer thinks a car is worth (the MSRP).
  • We know we don’t ever need to pay that much.
  • We look online and at newspaper and TV ads and see all kinds of special offers and prices.
  • We go to the dealer and find out they would like us to pay more than the MSRP.

This is a pricing nightmare that is specific to the auto industry (you sure don’t see it at the grocery store).

2. No car does it all
When consumers start car shopping, we look at the selling points of cars (and carmakers) we are interested in. Some of us are looking for the best performance, while others want the best fuel efficiency. Some want cars that are visually appealing, while others would rather have a car that can comfortably haul a family. Some want cars that will hold their value, while others simply want the lowest price up front. Some of us want all of that in one package, as promised by some car ads, and are disappointed when we can’t find it.

...with a Ford dealer ad

...with a Ford dealer ad (combined with Toyota).
Where is the brand experience?

3. Advertising messages fall flat
We are bombarded with car ads every day. We see ads from Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and more that strive to make vehicles look amazing while artfully showing off features and performance. But minutes later we see ads from car dealers that scream (literally) about insanely low prices. From a consumer’s point of view, this is confusing, because we are having two very different experiences with the same brand. In our eyes, dealers are extensions of the manufacturers, and any sales schemes they create are reflected right back onto the automaker, which cheapens the brand message instead of reinforcing it.

I think dealer advertising tends to cancel out manufacturer advertising, leaving consumers to trust only their judgment and the opinions of people we trust.

How to fix it
The first issue, price, is something we can’t do anything about. When taken with the other two issues, though, that works itself out. We pay what we feel the car we want is worth to us.

Which brings us to the second issue: No car does it all. You know what kind of car appeals to you and why. If you’re a speed freak, you might want a Cadillac CTS-V simply because it was a few seconds faster around the Nurburgring than a BMW M5.

If you have a family, you might be in love with the Honda Odyssey because of its reputation for reliability and for holding its value. The fact that a Kia Sedona might be less expensive or a Ford Flex might be more attractive has no impact on your purchase decision.

Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, carmakers need to give it up and just honestly say what they are best at and why. Instead of searching for a new agency to produce a new gimmick every time sales take a dive (which GM is doing with Cadillac), why not work with the agency to identify core values and then build up the brand around those?

When a company focuses on its core values, the advertising falls into place (at least on the corporate level). Going a step further would be controlling dealer advertising and forcing it to conform to the corporate brand, which I think absolutely must be done.

Car consumers are smart. We know what we want. Automakers: Just tell us what you stand for, tell us what you do best, and we’ll buy your cars. Simple as that.

Does automotive advertising influence you, or do you rely on reviews and opinions of others when car shopping?



  1. I am probably alone when I say I actually love commercials and seeing a great advertisement. If you can make me want something or even think about it after a few seconds you have done a great job. I am also realistic about the fact that yes something is trying to be sold to me and I almost never end up purchasing the item but in my head I give the company props for doing a good job. I think Honda has been doing a great job. They have their Dream Documentary series, with a website and small commercials in movie theaters. These documentaries give me chills. Its great to see a company discussing the future of cars and innovation on a platform that reaches the public, while also promoting their cars. They also have a commercial where everyone is stating ” my mom has one, my sister, etc.”, and its true a varied range of people with different needs can find an affordable car for what they need in a Honda.

    So you can break down car buyers into people who want a luxury vehicles, safe/ space vehicles, green cars at different price points, trucks and then best deal car that gets you from point A to B. I think reaching out to these different categories should stay separate when advertising. I never get truck advertisements. Obviously they can pull a ton of weight and drive through mud, over rocks, but this is nothing new. I was influenced by an ad in the newspaper for the BMW 1 series. I needed a larger car to transport big canvases and wood, but aesthetics in a vehicle is important to me. Plus, I was trying to keep my price down. I was leaning towards a VW Touareg because its a smaller SUV, gets good mileage, in the price range I was willing to spend and then while flipping through the newspaper a half page spread of just the BMW 1 series and some text caught my eye (and of course changed the type of vehicle I needed into one that I wanted). It was simple and the car spoke for itself. Thats the best advertising in my opinion. I immediately went to the website (while thinking that the advertisement did its job and this would be the logical next step and that BMW/ the ad company they use would expect this too, well done!). Needless to say i moved to a city where I don’t need a car, however a friend of mine who I talked to about the 1 series did end up getting one, with the sports package and luckily I get to take it for joy rides. So all in all I am happy with the outcome and proud that simple advertising should be enough to get you to follow through with the car you may actually want.

    I do agree with this post however, for American cars I think advertising is necessary but disappoints. Ford is doing a great job with letting the public now that it is reinventing itself. If you are in the market and need all the information about cars in the size and price range then all you need to do is check out a few websites. If its a new design with great features then I want to see a great ad with some information but just enough to get me interested so I go to the next step. I also think you should always read reviews, but keep in mind the people that write reviews are extremes, they either love it or hate it. If you were in the middle were you actually take the time to write a review? Far and few between.

  2. As network of Automotive sites, we see so many automotive campaigns. The job of the manufacturer is make you want the car using branding etc. It’s the job of the dealer once you want the car to choose the right dealer for you.

    Dealerships want to spend the least amount of money on advertising they possibly can to sell the cars. They often have no budgets and will go with the cheapest agency or one of the senior manager’s son/daughter to design an ad (because they can use MS Paint).

    Quite often though dealers think they know how to advertise their dealerships, but in fact have never ever gone through the process of buying a car like a normal person because they have always been in the industry.

    It’s just crazy.

  3. I agree. I once had an internship at an autodealership family and I made the same case. Consumers are numb from being bombarded with lame commercials with paragraphs of disclaimers. I agree with the article, just point out what you do best and not to be all things to all people.

    Dealerships ads are no better.

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