Where’s the proposition? How cars, fries and bras have been defying convention

I was preparing a lecture recently on the theme of propaganda and advertising for the University of Westminster in London and it got me thinking about the way in which major corporations have become wary of traditional approaches to ad campaigns. I’ve blogged before about Volvo’s “Mystery of Dalaro” mockumentary and the “Life on Board” project, which take a surprisingly subtle approach to selling cars. It’s almost as if the in-your-face hard sell is thought to be counter productive nowadays. Perhaps the public is just too street wise? If we know we’re being sold to, we turn off. It’s therefore better to dress your commercial message in some unusual clothes. You can catch folk unawares before they dismiss your creative approach as commercial propaganda.

Audi’s “Art of the Heist” is perhaps the most elaborate exercise in this new ‘project’ genre and what they did to promote the A3 in the States is almost too complex to cover here. You can get a flavour at www.theartoftheheist.com and www.stolena3.com In a nutshell, agency McKinney-Silver created a three-month storyline involving a vehicle that had supposedly been stolen and then embellished it with movie content, multiple websites and real-time gaming that involved the general public. It all ended in an event at a Santa Monica hotel that was broadcast live over the web. Certainly a long way from the TV commercials we all grew up with. Whatever happened to the motor chasing its way through narrow mountain passes or skidding to a halt in the middle of the Arizona desert?

It’s not only car manufacturers that have got in on the act, however. Early in 2005, Americans were treated to the McDonalds French fry that looked like Abraham Lincoln. Blog pages and auctions on Yahoo! were just as critical to the success of the campaign as the TV commercials (see http://lincolnfry.yahoo.com/), although it has to be said that the television spots are beautifully written and directed.

At first glance, these campaigns seem to break some of the basic, age-old rules of advertising. Why isn’t the product centre stage? Where is the core, compelling proposition? On the first point, I’d argue that Audi A3s and the McDonalds fries are still core products, even if they’re ‘stolen’ in a make-believe game or shaped to look like former US Presidents. There’s no denying, however, that the classic sales pitch is hard to identify. The directness much beloved of old-school advertising executives has been replaced by something that’s altogether more touchy-feely. One can only assume that it’s thought to work though, as the budgets involved in some of these exercises would make failure difficult to contemplate.

When it comes to weird and wonderful approaches, there is of course a sliding scale. Some brands don’t go the whole hog, but still find an unusual and offbeat angle. A good example would be the recent UK campaign for Wonderbra, which doesn’t feature the product directly but concentrates instead on the public’s reaction to it. Experience WonderYou by clicking here. It may not be as elaborate as some of the other campaigns, but it does still defy convention to a certain degree.

American adman Rosser Reeves is credited with inventing the concept of the USP, which has served marketing professionals well over many decades. If he were working today, I’m not entirely sure what he’d make of cars that disappear and bras that hide themselves away. But to paraphrase one of his own famous remarks, if it makes the goddam sales curve go up rather down, it can’t be all bad.

© Phil Woodford, 2005. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford is an advertising creative director and lecturer.
W www.philwoodford.com E 108th@philwoodford.com