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November 10, 2004
Automobile Advertising,­ Street Drugs and Secret Cults

It’s confirmed. I must be seeing things from a different planet. And relax. This is not going to be a simplistic car-bashing essay from a committed bicycle rider, pedestrian and mass transit user. So let us begin.

Landing a car account is one of the recurring wet dreams most agencies suffer from. It's the white knight, the princess bride, the big break, the Hollywood discovery, the home run, the raise, the hiring, the corner office, the sex.

Car advertising is media pervasive, even highly oppressive in some time slots, e-mail inboxes and now on many street corners. Cars and the Car Mythology occupy a deep, taken-for-granted place in advertising, media, business and the American life of desire. But why has most car advertising obviously been sucking on the crack pipe?

Selected recent observations follow:

Maker "H" shows us their R/D center to highlight their hypothetical safety lab engineering. Then with a sudden open door, they reveal the "real world" this labor is intended for­ but they reveal not a rush hour or a parking lot, but pristine bucolic emptiness. Makers "N", "I", "C", "F", "T", "D" (and to be fair, many more) continue to show street scenes and rural roads empty as can be, as if their cars are meant to be driven after a chemical attack kills off most of the human race.

Another maker "H" goes even further by showing its product existing exclusively in a series of landscapes devoid of all green life, perhaps suggesting the vehicle's own environmental impact over time? Maker _____ shows their SUVs clean-as-a-whistle in rainy, muddy alpine meadows and windswept, sandy beaches. A few makers actually show their trucks clad in mud, but there isn¹t space here to delve into the ratio of SUVs that get used as SUVs to actual SUV sales, or that particular SUV Mythology. Minivan ads also show actual loads of human beings and cargo but we all know how "uncool" they are supposed to be. Maker "D" is also using its err,..um,.."trucks" to not only hype circa 1960s engine technology as progress, but to add biting acidity to the growing "he vs she" culture. (Another topic for the future.)

But wait a doggoned minute.

It doesn¹t take an electron microscope or the Hubble telescope to notice something funny going on here, something very odd and pervasive, a secret pact of some sorts. Reality is rarely, if ever depicted (or perhaps even considered?) in the world of automotive marketing. Unlike food ads, actual use of the product is conspicuously absent. I have yet to see a gas station, a clogged rush-hour freeway, packed grocery store lot or even a car parked in the street in front of house under a tree dangerously close to another car. No bumper stickers, window decals, film of dirt or dust. No sign of a human touch over any amount of time.

No, instead, we have to see a brand-new shiny car on a circular drive or a double-wide, fresh paved one with no cracks or oil spots. The same empty country roads, fantasy landscapes, "closed courses", spooky cityscapes, vector art backgrounds and studio sets. Fantasy, fantasy and fantasy again.

It seems obvious why we never see shots of the lower-class income people who end up buying millions of cars, new or used, even though they send potent brand images, too. Or teenagers in their first car, and gasp—their actual first accident. Or the joy of making the first monthly payment. It's probably because marketing, like most big government or our own society seems to care very little for these people or these moments because they aren't perceived as the hot Pavlovian triggers of the new product buying process.

I can only suppose that no one in charge at the client or agency is interested in Reality. And rather than give away exciting, powerful, apparently unused ideas, let me suggest that Reality is full of rich, differentiating, relevant areas of product marketing success. The ideas are found at home, at work and all around the micro-experiences of travel. Maybe we're all too numb to notice them. Maybe fantasy and hyperbole is all we're capable of. But films like "Schindler's List" and the latest spate of profitable documentaries prove there's money to be made in realism.

Or maybe it's something deeper. Maybe cars are so firmly planted in our culture and psyche that we dare not see them as they are. But count how many hulking parking garages and mammoth parking lots dot your physical and mental landscape­cars have certainly shaped our cities, homes and minds. Maybe Reality in this case is too close to Truth. And Advertising rarely calls Truth for a date, let alone an offer of marriage.

I'm quite serious. Anyone from creative, account service or client who actually makes these decisions for any Make is invited to e-mail me with their explanations. I realize I may have a lot to learn. But either way, I think we're both glad I didn't use "Reality TV" to make my point.

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As a strategist, writer, designer, producer, director, actor, musician, performer, teacher, trainer and speaker, creative marketing was a potentially ideal career for Paul. Yet after years of winning dozens of global creativity awards with various agencies, Paul gave up the awards pursuit and became a professional human being.

Paul launched the1101experiment in 2001, focusing on bringing top-level strategy, creativity and multi-dimensional success to global brands, but with an added emphasis on positive ethical and social opportunities. Paul's thinking has been published worldwide and has predicted many global cultural shifts long before they happened. 
Paul leads a mastermind network of friends, colleagues and multi-talented professionals from around the world who are strategists, writers, artists, web, social and interactive specialists, who are involved on all client work.
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