I was waylaid the other day by an advert, recently brought out by Subaru Japan to promote the BRZ. It starts with a small boy watching his dad looking after a presumably new Legacy circa 1990, while said kid plays with a Subaru 360-shaped key fob. The advert then skips forward in time, showing first a heated and physical argument between father and teenage son, and then a grown-up, late twenties son apprehensively driving his girlfriend to the first meeting of the parents. Naturally, the young gentleman is behind the wheel of a WR Blue Mica BRZ, and when he draws up outside the family home the same Legacy is still poking out of the garage (miraculously in exactly the same condition it was in the first scene, minus any of the war wounds old cars inevitably pick up now matter how well they are looked after).
Only Mum comes to greet the young couple, leaving the impression that relations between the father and son aren’t great. Mother tells the son that his dad is in ‘the usual place’, a cue for smartly-dressed junior to make a beeline outside and find his old man not polishing the Legacy Turbo, but instead running his fingers over the BRZ’s bodywork. Father and son mend their differences over a long drive in the new coupe, during which the boy says ‘thank you’ to his father (presumably for paying the extortionate medical school university fees, the only explanation for how someone so young could own a brand new sports car). The reconciliation culminates with the passing over of the Subaru 360 keyring from Legacy to BRZ keys and, one assumes, they girlfriend’s relief at being rescued from a long and awkward conversation with mother-in-law.
My initial reactions to this advert were three-fold. First, I wasn’t sure whether it was beautifully moving or vomit-inducingly cheesy. Three days later I still cannot make my mind up. Second, I thought it might have been better if they had left the new coupe in the driveway and taken the Legacy Turbo out to give the boxer engine a good gunning. Third, I realised the best car adverts are the ones that feature the manufacturer’s old products.
There are not all that many adverts that tip their hats to a company’s history, but the number is increasing. In some cases, like Mini, I suspect this is because the current incarnation of the company bears no relation to the original manufacturer, meaning a minefield of copyright and image rights issues lies between the new and old cars. For other companies, such as Seat and Hyundai, the reason is probably that they don’t have many good historical cars to fall back on. As funny as an advert featuring memories of a youngster chundering out the back of a Hyundai Stellar minicab would be, it wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence in the company’s pedigree.
Volkswagen are definitely the masters of the historical advert. They did a rather good one several years back containing every incarnation of Golf GTi, complete with period surroundings like the Eva Herzigova lingerie ad on a billboard during the Mark 3 scene, and the first British Starbucks branches opening up when the Mark 4 came along. It would have been perfect had they not blown it by ending the ad with the now middle-aged driver rolling up in his Mark 5 to buy back his original Mark 1, a little too much for my liking. More recently, they commissioned a considerably more naff effort depicting a girl growing up, starting with a baby being brought home in a 1986-registered Polo Coupe. Subsequent scenes show armbands, swimming lessons, forest walks, boyfriends, nightclubs and exam results, ending with dad buying his only daughter one of the latest Polos for going away to university. Clearly aimed at the most affluent of families – what normal person gets a brand new car for going to uni? – it did not escape my notice that the daughter’s Polo had ballooned to almost twice the size of the original in which she was brought home from hospital.
The case of Volkswagen makes me wonder if one of the main reasons car makers have shied away from featuring their old products in adverts is that it is so hard to do well. Bringing in the human factor can send more discerning viewers reaching for the barf bags, whereas focusing on the technology risks going right over the heads of the vast majority of modern consumers who just want a tin box on wheels and couldn’t give two hoots about the manufacturer’s history. I personally loved the Peugeot commercial that ran several years ago, in which various mechanical components flew around the screen, arranging themselves into such a bizarre array of objects as pepper mills, 504 Coupés, bicycles, 908 Le Mans racers and food mixers. But I would imagine a lot of consumers would prefer to know more about the current model line-up than learning about the diverse range of appliances that bear the rampant lion badge. And, in an act of sacrilege, they missed out the 205 GTi.
Geeks like me will lap up any advert that contains old cars, however history is a much trickier thing to do well when dealing with society at large. One organisation that managed it superbly, albeit not in the realm of automobiles, was British Airways. Released in 2011, To Fly. To Serve charts the airline’s progress through the different aircraft that have been used, showing a post-war DC3, the Vickers VC10, a contemporary jumbo jet and, of course, Concorde. All the pilots in the video are male, but that’s a discussion for another day. What makes this ‘work’, in my view, is that it spells out how the capability, comfort and most importantly safety of air travel have all progressed immensely. In just over a minute we go from a solitary aviator in goggles and a trenchcoat, to a three-man Boeing 747 crew relaying radio messages to Heathrow control and using their instruments to sail high into the sky above Terminal 5. We’ll take you where you want to go in complete safety, just like we’ve always done. BA are essentially goading you to go and ask any of the budget airlines if they know how to fly across the Atlantic with only one propeller and a compass.
It would be impossible to reflect on historic car adverts without talking about the gold standard – Honda’s Impossible Dream. We’ve all seen this one, so no need to go into detail. Moustachioed man in boiler suit gets onto monkey bike. Bike evolves into TT racer. Racer turns into fast car. Fast car morphs into powerboat. Powerboat evapourates and becomes a hot air balloon. And all of this set to Andy Williams belting out a rousing rendition of The Impossible Dream from the Peter O’Toole film Man of La Mancha. Later versions of the advert had to be changed slightly, the grand prix car being removed because Honda had pulled out of F1 (somewhat embarrassingly, the chassis then started winning once they put a Mercedes engine in it) and replaced with a racing bike.
What’s a bit different about the Impossible Dream is that it isn’t an advert for a specific car per se, rather a plug for Honda as a brand. No vehicle features for more than five seconds, and even then only a handful of them are available for the ordinary public to buy today. Instead, what it seems to say is ‘hey, here’s a lot of impressive and funky stuff Honda makes that you didn’t know about, so why not check out one of the cars you used to think were really boring?’ As opposed to attempting to make particular models cool, Honda have put their energies into marketing themselves as innovators and technological leaders. And it works. People under eighty are now buying Civics.
Here’s a thought to finish. When I saw that Subaru BRZ ad, my knee-jerk reaction was not to go and look at the price of new Subaru coupés. No, what I did was head over to eBay and search for second-hand Legacy Turbos. I might have bought a Subaru as a result of their campaign, but the company wouldn’t have gotten a penny of my money from it. Subaru did successfully manage to sell me one of their cars. It’s just a pity they were twenty years too late.
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