Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ten Pickup Truck Commercials a Hundred Times Over

Greetings from the Detroit Auto Show, which is always my favorite media project of the year. This year, I prepped myself by watching three weeks of non-stop football, during which I sat through a thousand pickup truck commercials from the big three automakers. Actually, to be more precise, I watched ten pickup truck commercials a hundred times over. All of them were calculated to clear out unwanted inventory by selling manliness. There wasn’t a single woman— not even one— driving any of those pickup trucks, nor were any women depicted watching the truck drivers being manly, and since women make more than half of all new vehicle buying decisions, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see any pickup trucks at Detroit this year. I was right.

The show has changed over the years, but never more so than this year. From the 1920s (no, I wasn’t attending back then) up through the 1970s, Detroit and the other gala auto shows in New York and Los Angeles fired our imaginations and took us on fantasy journeys where we glimpsed the future of car travel, and the shows did this in such a way that we couldn’t wait to arrive at that future. The irony is that all of this happened long before the advertising industry started using psychologists and focus groups to scientifically measure ways to reach the buyers. As marketing has become more sophisticated (at least when it comes to cars), the final offering to buyers has become less enticing. The Detroit Auto Show this week may be the pinnacle of that decline.

In the heyday of auto shows (the 1950s) the sizzle on the steak came from the concept cars— full size next-generation prototypes provided by the carmakers to showcase future offerings, as well as to gauge the reaction of prospective car buyers. In effect, the customer was brought into the process of finalizing the automotive designs. Then, somewhere in the 1970s, all those design decisions were passed to the suits in the marketing departments. Today, only the limited-production car builders like McLaren and Bugatti are doing those eye-popping, jaw-dropping concept projects. The result can be seen in the 2008 business performance of the mainstream, mass production car industry, which hit an all time low. There was a time when people at the Detroit Auto Show would say to the auto industry representatives, “Where do I sign up to buy one of those beauties?” This year, people seemed to be saying, “Is that the best thing you’ve got?”

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