We should be embarrassed: Thoughts on the documentary “Art & Copy”

Who should be embarrassed?  The auto industry and their communications agencies.

If you haven’t had a chance to see the documentary “Art & Copy,” you must.  Last night I saw it for the second time and enjoyed every minute.  If you have worked in the advertising business or are responsible for advertising on the client side it is well worth seeing.

It’s a chance to see some of the most talented people in the agency business talk about what makes great communications.  Hal Riney, Mary Lawrence, Jim Durfee, Lee Clow, George Lois, Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein, Dan Wieden and others talk about what they think represents great work and what inspires it.  They talk about great ideas: Braniff’s End of the plain plane, Apple’s 1984 and Think Different, Got Milk, Reagan’s re-election campaign, Nike’s Just Do It and VW’s Think Small among others.

At the end, these people and the work leave you inspired.  You’re reminded that at its best, advertising can change opinion, entertain, move people emotionally and to action.  Great work respects people and treats them decently.  Great work can build brands, companies and value.  Great work is really hard to create, get approved and execute, but when it all comes together, it can move mountains.

Here’s why we should be embarrassed.  The automotive industry was hardly represented.  Bernbach’s original work for Volkswagen was deservedly featured.  Other than that, a few Volvo print ads, a Rebel spot from the 60’s and Honda’s “Hate Something/Change Something” from the UK gets referenced.

As an industry we have interesting, exciting, cool, emotional and sometimes wonderful products. The industry has been the largest advertising spender for decades.  Virtually every American needs at least one vehicle.  Buying a car or truck is the second largest expenditure the average American will make in his or her lifetime so they pay attention. Automobiles and trucks inspire songs, traveling by car has inspired books and movies.  The auto industry has shaped America, literally.

So, with all this said, when advertising industry luminaries are asked to talk about great work that has made a difference, the only automotive work mentioned is an almost 50 year old campaign for a little German car and a couple of print ads that are 40 years old.  As an industry, we should be embarrassed.  Where are the great automotive campaigns that changed not only the fortunes of brands and companies but also inspired people?  There have been some, but they’re old.

With a few exceptions, the automotive industry’s work in the last twenty years has been dismal.  A few ads and maybe one campaign have been great. Honda’s Cog and Hate Something/Change Something commercials from Wieden & Kennedy London come to mind. VW’s Drivers Wanted campaign (Arnold) will probably stand the test of time.

At a time when the US auto industry is recovering from a cataclysmic shift.  After a year when sales dropped more than 30%, we are now entering a “new normal.”  Sales will be 12-14MM units per year for the foreseeable future and competition will be extraordinary.  At a time when manufacturers need differentiated brands more than ever, most are weak.

Now is the time for the manufacturers and their agencies to do the kind of work that builds and differentiates brands, engages people emotionally and builds value not only for the companies but also for their customers.

Let’s do it now, so that people are inspired to buy our products.  We’ll all benefit, the manufacturers, the agencies, the economy and the customers.

That way when “Art & Copy II” is in theatres near us, the auto industry will not only be featured, but also held up as an example of greatness.

Please let me know what you think….

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22 Responses to “We should be embarrassed: Thoughts on the documentary “Art & Copy””

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  14. great blog –

    curious: did you write ‘the ultimate driving machine’?

    if not, please tell me who did. I’m working for a marketing guy who claims he wrote it – pure fiction, but i’d like to know anyway.

    thanks so much,

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  16. Cameron says:

    Curvin, thanks again. What’s “old” is “new” again. There’s a ton of wisdom in your piece and of course fundamental principles, some will blithely dismiss them as dated and they will be the worse for it. But I hope they read this and comment, it would be a great discussion to have.

  17. Curvin O'Rielly says:

    Some things never change, Cameron.

    Here’s an article I wrote for Magazine Age in March, 1982.

    “Panic-Induced Mediocrity”
    By Curvin O’Rielly

    “When I took on the task of writing this article, it seemed easy enough. After all, I’ve written hundreds of ads. Many of them long, fact-filled, carefully reasoned pieces of copy about cars. Labors of love, really. And who could doubt my personal involvement in the product? I’ve owned 18 cars in my life, including one just for racing.

    “The more I mulled over the possibilities, however, the more it seemed as if I’d only be giving the same critique of automobile advertising that everybody else does.

    “But then, on January 26, 1982, the day this article was written, I looked at my two morning newspapers. On page 4 of The New York Times business section was a news report headlined, ‘Auto Sales by Big 3 Down 14%.’

    “And next to a similar report on page 6 in The Wall Street Journal was a story headlined ‘Board of DeLorean to Discuss Finances; Auto Maker Denies Its Survival Is at Stake.’

    “One word jumped out at me: ‘survival.’ Not so much for its use in the DeLorean Motor Cars situation or how it may relate to the rest of the auto business, but how it impacts automobile advertising.

    “Given the fact that the auto business is in the midst of its worst continuous sales slump in years, the threat of not surviving is for some, if not close, at least imaginable. The mere threat alone has caused some people to panic. Not hysterically so, but certainly with a degree of nervousness. And inarguably that
    nervousness has resulted in a certain amount of mediocrity in auto advertising.

    ‘To be completely fair, mediocre advertising is probably the least crucial factor of all the parts that make up the current auto sales problem, but mediocre advertising is also the only factor that is quickly and easily controlled.

    “What’s wrong, specifically?

    “• ‘Marshmallow’ strategies that may have been appropriate when the market was booming but seem highly inappropriate now that the universe of car buyers is shrinking. More strategies need to be written with a “take no prisoners” goal.

    “• Executions that look as if it’s business as usual; that don’t address the consumer’s current concerns.

    “• The visible hand of too many authors. Copy, in other words, that reads as though a committee of hacks wrote it. No, completely mangled it.

    “• A lack of adherence to the basics of advertising.

    “Let’s dwell on that last point. Advertising, the basics say, is no more than salesmanship in print. The job of art and copy is to tell consumers what a product is and why they need it or should want it above all other choices.

    “Facts should matter, but emotions should matter more, keeping Mark Twain’s quote in mind: “Emotions are among the toughest things to manufacture out of whole cloth; it is easier to manufacture seven facts than one emotion.”

    “At the moment in automobile print advertising, however, the emotional part – creativity – has increasingly become the skill of ornamentation and copywriting the craft of obfuscation. The auto industry has a story to tell but the message isn’t coming through.

    “Go to any magazine and study the car ads. A good percentage of them are written as through a random recitation of available features constitutes a powerful sales argument. How many times, for example, have you read “rack-and-pinion steering” in a car ad? Or seen the phrase “MacPherson struts”? Hundreds, probably. But can you explain the advantage of either of those engineering features? You can’t, can you? Neither can the millions of potential car buyers reading car ads.

    “And those aren’t the only empty phrases in auto copy. Here’s an assortment of other phrases lacking in horsepower, all chosen without bias from the current crop of auto ads: “automotive breakthrough of the decade”; “first-class opulence”; “quick-handling… road-hugging… responsive”; “nimble… easy to
    maneuver… with a smooth, refined ride”; “escape to where you long to be”; “tomorrow’s technology…”; and so on.

    “Copy like this – copy written with such meaningless phrases leads to erroneous conclusions by the reader, if they lead to a conclusion at all.

    “Graphic gymnastics has taken the place of substantive thought in art direction. Is “punk/nouveau” anymore than a graphic gimmick? Of course it isn’t. So why such dependence on it? Why so many ads with silver as a fifth color? Why so many charts and illustrations against graph-paper backgrounds? Why are so
    many of the photos of car in ads presented in so many cliché-ridden poses? Is there really only one way to photograph a car? Only one angle to use? If an element of design isn’t contributing to the message, eliminate it.

    “These are tough times in the car business and, therefore, tough times in the automobile advertising business as well. There’s only one way to proceed: sanely.

    “Don’t panic in the face of the enormity of the task. Recognize that selling the heritage and value of, say, Chevrolet is infinitely more rewarding long-term than selling a model name like Bel Air, Impala, Biscayne – all names, by the way, that have disappeared. [Update note: Chevy brought the Impala back.]

    “Recognize that there is a long-term. Invest in ideas. Good ideas survive bad executions, but the worst idea cannot be saved by the most brilliant execution.

    “Finally, recognize that ‘the way it’s always been done’ may have sold cars only because almost anything sold cars when everybody was employed, when interest rates were manageable, when ‘sticker shock’ didn’t exist, when it didn’t cost so much to just live, and when the future wasn’t quite so cloudy.

    “Further panic will only yield further mediocrity. And then the cycle will only escalate. Unless… well, unless something wonderful happens. Unless the people responsible for doing auto ads and the people responsible for approving auto ads begin to stand up, one by one, and say “enough.”

    “I, for one, am waiting for it to happen. It has to happen. Given my admittedly narrow perspective of the American economy, they have to do it or we’ll all be up the creek.

    (Postscript: My article is dated. So you can add and subract details here and there from it. But what you’re left with is a catetegorial need for automomobile makers to stop being wimpy world-class navel gazers and for them to gird themselves for the hard days ahead. Everybody in adverting has a favorite story about Bill Bernbach, the legendary founder of the creative revolution. Mine is the day Nathan Orbach, founder of the eponymous department store, told Bernbach that he had a great idea. “Let tell them the truth,” he said. Maybe we need truth now instead of hype.

  18. Cameron says:

    Curvin, I agree wholeheartedly. I think it the one off executions are noteworthy only because the rest of the work is dismal.

    My guess is that the original work for Mercedes-Benz and BMW didn’t get mentioned because it was considered old or because the directors decided they’s covered the “genre” with VW. Those were great campaigns that built great brands. Personally I feel they’ve languished in recent years. The original Saturn work started a brand off on a terrific path, only to have screwed up by GM.

    My point was not that no great work has been done in the automotive category, there most certainly has been.

    My real point is that automotive is a category with large budgets, high levels of interest, and cool products. Those things should be the building blocks that enable solid strategy and great work over the long-term, but haven’t. That’s a shame and we should ask ourselves “why?” so we can fix it.

    BTW, thanks for commenting.

  19. Curvin O'Rielly says:

    I feel a tinge of “sic transit gloria,” having worked on and done good/great/exceptional work for three automobile accounts during my agency career: First, as a copywriter on the BMW account at Ammirati Puris AvRutick during the early years of “The Ultimate Driving Machine;” next, as a copywriter/creative director on the Saab account at Ally & Gargano when the brand was in so much trouble in the U.S. that it needed an answer “or else;” finally, as creative director on the Saturn account at Hal Riney & Partners when Saturn was launched.

    For the American automobile business to pull out of its current death spiral, I think we should set aside our collective admiration for spectacular, one-off commercials like Honda’s “Cog” and “Hate Something/Change Something” and instead focus on good, solid, meaningful strategic thinking. Thinking so simple it can only lead to creative work car buyers can understand, not to mention creative work that will last a while and thus accrue some value for the brands we work on.

    Please don’t misunderstand me, Cameron. I’m not opposed to spectacular creative work. I’m just saying that a great strategy poorly executed is infinitely more powerful over the long haul than a mediocre strategy presented brilliantly. Best, of course, is a great strategy that’s brilliantly executed and then defended – defended inasmuch as there are always mini minds who want to rip up strategies or tinker with executions.

  20. Cameron says:

    I agree that engineering culture of most automotive companies doesn’t lend itself to those skill sets, but what about the marketing people, isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

  21. curmudgeon says:

    ironically, the skill sets required to build great cars are not transferable to picking great advertising. in fact, those skill sets often lead auto executives to pick precisely the wrong people internally as well as the wrong agencies.

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