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Emotion and Reality in Car Advertisements

The hour-long Super Bowl game plus the half-time show plus the ads filled four hours of television time. The ads are said to be “the most expensive … in the business,” a 30-second spot reportedly costing about $5 million. It’s no wonder they are so hyped.  This is on top of the production costs.  Since many Super Bowl ads have lived up to the hype, even reflexive ad-muters find themselves staying tuned.

This year Ford was a major sponsor but eight other car companies plus Michelin also strutted their stuff on the Super Bowl runway.  Cars were also featured in six of the nine movie trailers and a humorous Sprint ad in which a car was pushed over a cliff. Beer and soft drink ads are traditional Super Bowl fare. This year an Australian wine company featured a kangaroo as the ultimate ‘party animal’.

The mix of football, cars, beer, and wine is remarkably traditional and obviously resilient to any counter-messaging from the likes of road safety regulators or advocacy groups who have been trying for years now to unscramble them.  But it’s a David and Goliath-like contest: the safety conscious ‘David’ versus the ‘Goliath’ of the advertising, marketing, branding, persuasion industry.  Against this Goliath, David is still just considering which smooth sling stone to use.

Another oddity of the Super Bowl mix is the degree to which Goliath perhaps speaks disingenuously.  The car ads that display their vehicles glorify them as beauteous wonders of technology (Alfa Romeo, Buick, Lexus).  They show elegant detail, shine, and comfort, a lifestyle essential for those above the fray.  The ads that don’t show the vehicles focus on brand purpose, linking the brand to high moral aspirations such as bringing families together through modern technology (Hyundai), solving life’s frustrating little problems and setbacks (Ford), accomplishing dreams (Honda), and achieving justice (Kia).

All ads are about some form of betterment and they pull out all the stops from humor to poetic rhetoric.  Bring on the movie trailers, though, and the beauteous high minded car, within seconds, is transformed into a weapon carrier, an exploding bomb, a mean machine that defies all the rules of physics and gravity before bursting into a fireball or sailing over a cliff to certain destruction of its passengers, the surrounding environment and the vehicle itself.  In the movies, cars often exist simply to be smashed, pulped, reduced to fragments.

Another tradition of car ads on display again in this year’s Super Bowl line up is the celebration of speeding.  Car ads cannot resist showing a lone car on a winding road—better if the cliffside—driving at a thrilling speed.  This must be the essential image of freedom, of the ability to overcome any limits of nature, of self, of society.  Speeding is, of course, a factor in most road fatalities but is not in the spirit of the moment.

Cars have always been sold on emotional responses.  This is the essence of motor vehicle marketing.  And why not?  We still enjoy the invitation to dream a little.  And all cars marketed today are a vast improvement safety-wise compared to the vehicles or even 10 years ago.

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