On Publicity And The Motor Car

Author

W.B.

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In his chapter “What Hope of Tomorrow?” in his book “The Kings of the Road,” that American motoring philosopher Ken W. Purdy claims that automobile makers knew what they were up to when, a few years back, “they suddenly and simultaneously switched from selling on performance to selling on looks. No more was speed discussed. Nothing was heard of hill-climbing ability, endurance, longevity. Pastel colours, acres of chromium, and garish upholstery had more appeal where appeal counted — with the little woman.”

Stemming, according to Purdy, from an old-tyme Jordan advertisement for their Playboy model, which told you nothing about this car, but instead worked to the formula “Buy this car, kids, and somehow, magically, you’ll be happier,” present-day automobile advertising practitioners work to this rule; according to Purdy Buick does it best.

Wondering if this trend is spreading to Europe, while I was “grounded” during the great freeze-up of late-January, I dug out an enlarged, double-price Motor Show issue of a weekly paper — you know the idea 308 pages of paid advertising to 89 (mostly publicity) of editorial material.

The first impression I received was that slogans, some of them pretty abstract, seem to predominate.

Yet so far no one seems to wage war with slogans answering rival claims, as has happened in other branches of advertising, but no doubt it could be done; for instance, the Morgan people, making a car in the same price and type class as the M.G., but possessing better acceleration by reason of a larger engine, could counter “Safety Fast” with “Safely Past,” and so on. In the good old days radiator shapes were excellent advertising in themselves, hence the retention of the Gothic Rolls-Royce radiator for fifty years, although I, for one, would have preferred that it had not been inflated and pushed forward so prominently in recent times. Alas, too, that once famous radiator-mascots, such as the Hispano-Suiza flying stork, Voisin’s many layered bird, the Alvis hare, the Minerva goddess, Stutz’s Red Indian’s head, Jaguar’s jaguar, etc., have nowhere to ride, these days. Those that have survived are but a poor parody of their former glory. Even the R.-R. silver lady has sunk to her knees with the passage of time, and no longer are her feet kept warm by a real radiator filler cap beneath them. But the famous triple-pointed star of Mercédès-Benz is prominent still.

Fortunately, we still have those national figures like Mr. Mercury, Mon. Bibendum, and, outside motoring, Mr. Cube and nationalised Mr. Therm. I would not dare to cross swords with these famous characters (most certainly not with Mon. B; see next page!). They are far nicer than slogans.

This does point to the opinion in expert publicity circles that cars sell on appearance and surface appeal and that no longer do matters such as bore and stroke, number of cylinders, brake horsepower and chassis weight interest readers of motor car display advertisements. This may be a compliment to the technical Press, which sets out such engineering data very clearly and far more consistently these days than was once the case. But I am not convinced that slogans are of much value, although I do consider that owners influence prospective purchasers, in which respect the loyalty of Citroën, Volkswagen, Ford and other users must add up to many thousands of pounds worth of deservedly free publicity for the makers of such dependable and endearing cars.

To the credit of the advertisement writers they take care, these days, to use photographs or sensible sketches of cars for their “copy,” the elongated vehicles with interiors wider than a park bench which were once so frequently encountered now being confined to catalogues and folders issued by American, and Americanised-British, manufacturers.

Nevertheless, no matter how well worded the slogan, how attractive the layout of the advertisement, I consider that nothing convinces the reader so much as an honest statement of success in endurance runs or competitions. In this respect, in the aforesaid Motor Show issue, while other advertisers were thrusting at one another with slogans, coloured photographs and carefully-balanced layout of their “copy,” Lancia contented themselves with a quietly-set-out announcement depicting a not over-good drawing of an Aurelia and listing what they rightly described as “An Amazing Sequence of Victories” — Giro di Sicilia, Mille Miglia, Palermo-Monte Pellearino, XXXVII Targa Florio, Coppa delle Dame, Coppa della Toscana, Chiusaforte-Sella Nevea, Giro dell’Umbria, Bolzano-Mendola, Coppa della Consuma, Coppa delle Dolomiti, Rallye des Alpes, Susa-Moncenisio, Aosta-Gran San Bernardo, Giro della Calabrie, G.P. del Portogallo, Stella Alpine, Liegi-Roma-Liegi, Catania-Etna, Bologna-Raticosa and Volamte d’argento.

This, I confess, impressed me far more than the statement by another manufacturer that their cars had “more power than you’ll ever need” and “more comfort than you’ve ever dreamed of,” or that another car is “styled for the future and built to last,” including white-wall tyres and rim finishers as optional extras. Yet, if the American view is correct, the latter is the correct way of advertising cars which are aimed at Pop and Mom rather than at you and me.

Competition success, however, in a motor-minded age, provides the best selling medium of all. Let us hope that this year we shall see no more of those phony advertisements in which a car is prominently announced as having finished FIRST in an important competition, although in very small type it is admitted that this placing applied, for example, only to a saloon car in a particular capacity class, driven by a woman and starting from a particular control, or qualifications to that effect. In this connection, Dr. Ing. Porsche, in his beautiful catalogue dedicated to his outstanding 1 1/2-litre sports car, is not beyond criticism, for he states that Porsche won last year’s Le Mans 24 Hour Race, whereas, in fact, they won the class, which is not quite the same as the Jaguar’s outright win or Panhard’s Index of Performance victory.

Amongst discerning enthusiasts, including the Americans, success in competition is the best publicity a car can have — Lancia have started off very nicely with the Monte Carlo Rally victory, and I hope British cars will pull out some big plums this season in rallies, sports-car races, speed hill-climbs and long-distance racing and record-breaking.

If victory in inter-marque contests escapes the luckless manufacturer, it is up to his publicity tycoons to think up some individual achievement, which might range from attacking the record to Cape Town or making 1,000 non-stop ascents of Prescott to a given time limit without topping up the radiator or adjusting the brakes.

In the past such feats were commonplace — do you remember A.C. and Stoneleigh light-cars ascending Snowdon via the rail track and a bevy of A.C. cars climbing the steps at Clovelly?

Nor do we seem to enjoy any more those jolly publicity gambits put on by the accessory people, like Sternol’s £5 flag, which, if spotted, won the spotter the fiver, providing he was carrying a can of Sternol oil — or that man with the enormous head, a sort of British Bidendum, who motored about in an early Alvis advertising Peto and Radford batteries. I am sure that such stunts were not leas expensive than the present-day trend of giving away free samples of valuable commodities to potential record-breakers and rally drivers in the hope that, should they bring home the bacon, a gullible public will assume that they have worn a — watch or thrived on bottles of — or smoked — almost from the cradle.

It is, perhaps, less easy to think up suitably impressive stunts nowadays, and before he left the Austin Motor Co. Alan Hess, then their P.R.O., confessed to me that he was at a loss to plan an appropriate debut for the Austin A30, in spite of the fact that he had previously organised some remarkable stunts for A40, A90 and other Austin models and, at the same time, enjoyed some very nice holidays at the expense of the Longbridge manufacturer.

He did request every owner of an Austin Seven, no matter of what antiquity, to write to him when it was known that Austin was producing another “Seven” (if the 800-c.c. A.30 rated at 8.38 h.p. can be so called) and rumour suggested a vast gathering of Sevens or even a utility Austin Seven Owners’ Club to rival the more sporting 750 M.C. But the idea was still-born and Hess’ correspondents used their stamps for nothing.

Press road-tests, as conducted by the technical Press, constitute some of the most valuable publicity of all, and are good value, too, when you consider that today’s advertisements in reputable motor papers cost about as much per page as a slightly-used Austin Seven pre-war and that such tests seldom occupy less than two pages, sometimes more. Even so, some P.R.O.s seem to forget that something like £150 of free publicity is being given and are condescending when loan of a Press car is sought. It is the exception rather than the rule for the journalist to have the car for more than two full days. Nor, at all events in my experience, are motoring journalists offered free or half-price cars, or lent cars for long periods, or otherwise bribed to write only favourable comments on certain products.

Here perhaps I may lighten the going by telling a story of what happened during the war to a contemporary. They had a leading article on, if I remember correctly, the early Pennington car, which led to the front cover of the journal carrying the title of this article, “The World’s Worst Car.” Alas, the advertisement on the rest of the cover that week happened to bear the single word — “MORRIS.” I gather the long-distance telephone wires became pretty warm early on publication day, but I feel sure the subsequent excellence of the little Issigonis-designed Morris Minor must have offset any adverse comment on this unfortunate occasion!

There are various ways of courting good feeling between manufacturer and user other than advertising. One-make clubs do yeoman service in this respect and, although they are usually privately sponsored, the Nuffield Organisation, for instance, takes the M.G. Car Club and Riley Motor Club under its wing — which makes it all the more surprising that, when the Humber Register and Sunbeam Register wished to use the appropriate trade marks for their badges they got no sort of sympathy at all from the group which now markets cars bearing these illustrious names, in spite of the fact that meetings of beautifully-preserved and immaculately-groomed early specimens of these cars, in an atmosphere of extreme enthusiasm, must constitute a fine advertisement, in much the same way that inscribing “BOVRIL” or “OXO” in huge lettering on hoardings is recognised to be sufficient publicity for these beverages without the addition of any “sales chatter.”

Of course, the best laid schemes of mice and men . . . It is all very well, for example, to try to interest the purchaser of a car in a house journal issued by the maker — Austin, Nuffield, Ford, Standard, Vauxhall and Rootes each publish such journals and very beautifully produced they are — but you can imagine the feelings of the person who received a charmingly-worded invitation to subscribe to the appropriate magazine at the precise moment at which he was about to admonish the manufacturer because, on the first long run since running-in his new car, oil had leaked from beneath the facia and ruined the driver’s trousers — a copy of the letter in question is in my possession to vouch for the truth of this unhappy incident! I have seen, also, the manufacturer’s reply to the effect that their guarantee, etc., does not cover damage to trousers, etc. Legally they are no doubt beyond reproach, but some of us feel that in a case of this sort a small cheque to compensate the disillusioned owner and satisfy him that the manufacturer is not completely disinterested would be worth many times the amount spent on display advertising.

The highlights of outstanding Press tests can justifiably be used in advertisements, although it must not be overlooked that it is one thing to average, say, 43.5 m.p.h. from Scotland to London, for example, in a saloon Eight, but would be another matter altogether to be obliged to use the same car for the remainder of the year!

I am not going to attempt to assess the publicity value of X slogans in terms of Y race victories, but I recall that even dignified, slogan-free advertising can have its pitfalls. For instance, Rolls-Royce, Ltd., at one time ran a series of advertisements with a simple border to a page which carried only their name, address, badge and the words “The Best Car in the World.” To this Hispano-Suiza, whose 37.2-h.p. chassis in that era rivalled the 40/50 from Derby, countered in subtle fashion with an advertisement, again in exceedingly good taste, with a simple border to a page which carried merely their name, address, and their badge.

At which stage, perhaps it is high time I Ieft the technique of advertising to the publicity boys. — W. B.

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