Everything “Old” Is “New” Again by Curvin O’Rielly

Curvin O’Rielly has been kind enough to allow us to publish this article on McNaughton Automotive Perspectives.  For those of you who don’t know Curvin, he is one of the most respected copywriters in the advertising business.  Among his automotive  accomplishments was the creation of the Saturn brand with his colleagues at Hal Riney and Partners.  As you will see, Curvin’s perspective on automobile advertising is both timely and timeless.

Everything “Old” Is “New” Again

By Curvin O’Rielly

In 1982, when I was a young creative director at BBDO in New York, I was asked to write an article about the automobile business for Magazine Age.

The article was well received. I even won an American Business Press award for it. The question is, has it stood the test of time?

Well, some of the details I included in the article are as dated as the wide ties we used to wear (the ones you’re saving, hoping they come back into style again), or the disco music we used to listen to (admit it; you boogeyed to disco), or the haul-ass iron we used to drive, the cars with more horsepower than their suspension systems and brakes could reasonably handle (unless they were well-engineered vehicles from Europe).

What’s still true about my article, unfortunately, is that the automobile industry is once again in deep trouble. This time, it’s poised at the abyss, owing in part to the economic tremors that came close to causing a complete meltdown. At the abyss, too, because it was smart (or so it prided itself) but then not smart enough. I mean, surely those at the wheel had to have seen all the danger signs on the road they were heading down, just as they had to have known they were racing toward a disaster of epic proportions.

That said, here are the observations I made 28 years ago, with some minor rewrites here and there.


“Panic-Induced Mediocrity”

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 it not surviving is imaginable to some, though its demise is unlikely to ever occur. Nonetheless, 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. (And completely mangled it in the process.)
  • 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, inasmuch as Mark Twain’s advice about facts and emotions was perfect: ‘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 blah blah, 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 the same 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.

In other words, 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: 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 didn’t seem 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.”


So that’s what I wrote 28 year ago. It was an innocent world then. Print, radio, television; those were our tools, along with our ability to find a valuable piece of territory for a brand to settle and eventually own.

Everybody in adverting has a favorite story about Bill Bernbach, the legendary founder of the creative revolution. Mine is the one, possibly an apocryphal tale, about the day Nathan Orbach, founder of the eponymous department store, told Bernbach that he had a great idea.

“I got a great gimmick,” Orbach supposedly said. “Let’s tell the truth.”

Maybe we need that now. Truth instead of hype.

http://autoperspectives.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/curvinorielly-273x300.jpg 273w, http://autoperspectives.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/curvinorielly-933x1024.jpg 933w, http://autoperspectives.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/curvinorielly.jpg 941w" sizes="(max-width: 136px) 100vw, 136px" />Curvin O’Rielly is a branding consultant who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY. His automobile advertising credits include working as a copywriter on the BMW and Saab accounts, as well as serving as creative director on the Saturn business during its successful launch. He can be reached at curvin.orielly@corllc.com.

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