The laughs, the goofs, and the plain horrible of motor vehicle adverts

It is not the first time that the comic genius of one Jeremy Clarkson from the BBC has driven my motoring thoughts in a particular direction.

Several months ago, I watched as he and his colleague tried to come up with a TV ad for the then recently released Volkswagen Scirocco diesel.

The brief was: be honest, do not put up any display of hooliganism, and no sporty driving. After several goofy attempts, his final creation was a video clip containing snippets of news footage showing widespread panic in various towns all over Poland: mass hysteria, people fleeing, riots, the works. Then came the closing shot of the car with the tagline: The new Scirocco Diesel. Berlin to Warsaw in one tank.

I laughed like a drunken horse for several days after that. I watched that particular segment over and over, all the while ROTFL (you need a teenage friend to explain those initials). I still laugh up to now, just thinking about it.

You need to have a bit of the world’s political history and just the tiniest bit of motoring sense to realise that was one loaded punch line. Sure, the man was risking offending the sensibilities of Polish nationals and reminding Germans that one of their chancellors painted them in the worst possible light by committing possibly the biggest crime against humanity in all of known history, but you have to admit it: the double entendre in that one statement and the impression that Herr Clarkson created of Poland in a panic was hilarious, in a diabolical sort of way. And he did manage to bring out the incredible fuel economy of the Scirocco, seeing as to how it is a small, diesel powered car.

So, back to my thoughts. When I finally stopped laughing (briefly), I asked myself: What in the world happened to motor vehicle advertising?

Not necessarily the world over (we still have very controversial ads abroad) but particularly in Africa, and especially Kenya. Is it creativity we lack or are we so strict in bringing out a car’s particular traits while avoiding stepping on toes that we forget that humour is what makes most people remember stories, experiences, or indeed advertising?

Here are some more lists, again, (one today, the rest later), and the first is:

Car manufacturers who have unwittingly shot themselves in the foot.

Laws or no laws, sometimes foresight goes out the window in the quest for amusement. For the sake of example, here are four ads, which, at first, look harmless but on deeper analysis, appear to have missed the boat by an ocean.

MG Midget

This particular ad is a poster from the 1970s, not even a video. It shows an MG Midget, a man sitting in it and a lovely air hostess in the act of stepping into it. She could have been a well-dressed meter maid though, given that the car is next to a parking meter, along a street with parked cars and one or two driving by. Not bad.

So what’s the problem? Well, in most street scene ads, the cars not being flouted tend to be from the same manufacturer, but this ad is a medley of bigger vehicles (the Midget is tiny, hence the name), and they steal the thunder from the Midget.

The ad is also not only sexist, but an outright lie — the Midget was not much loved owing to its frog-eyed countenance, wheezy A Series engine, Old Testament-specs, running gear, and leaf spring suspension. It also suffered numerous water leaks, unexplained oil dribbles, and was more than susceptible to rot. Not exactly a girl magnet then, but ironically, the tag line was: You can do it in an MG. Hmmm…

The minuscule print under the picture was equally sneaky, just like the fine print in a lengthy contract. A quick glance would inform you that 0-60 mph (roughly 0-100 kph) came up in 9.6 sec, which in the 1970s was rather impressive — until on closer inspection you realise that it actually said 0-50. They may have as well said it had a top speed of 800 kph, provided it was attached to a Boeing 747 at full thrust.

Dodge Challenger

A few years before the Midget, Chrysler in the US unleashed a trio of muscle cars to do battle with the very successful Ford Mustang: the Dodge Charger, the Plymouth Barracuda, and the Dodge Challenger.

The poster for the Dodge Challenger was a bit unnerving: it depicted the Challenger charging hard down a mountain pass, which was okay.

But in their quest to inject a sense of action and speed into the picture, it also showed the Challenger to be in a wild state of understeer, going round a corner, its offside tyres almost treading air as the car was clearly headed for the edge of the road. Nothing like the spectre of imminent death to attract customers, eh Chrysler?

TV host Jay Leno said Chrysler must have been really courageous to show their car leaving the road in their own advert. This faux pas may or may not have had something to do with the fact that the Mustang went on to enjoy unparalleled sales success while the Challenger withered in the searing heat of the Mustang’s glory.

What makes the whole thing sad is that the picture in the poster was not even a real photo; it was an artist’s impression. The car company had the chance to make it look any way they wanted, and they chose understeering to the point of incipient crashing.

Ford SportKa

The SportKa is the sporty version of Ford’s little Ka, a tiny city runabout. In its ad, it is shown calmly resting in somebody’s driveway, minding its own business, when along comes an adventurous pigeon, seeking to land on its roof (and presumably deposit some guano while there). When it gets close enough to the SportKa, up goes the bonnet and down goes the pigeon, its worthless bird life having been slapped out of it by a sheet of aluminium. Then the one liner: Ford SportKa. The Ka’s evil twin. Funny, huh?

Not if you are a bird-loving environmentalist. Tree huggers tend to detest the motor vehicle in general and sporty ones in particular, and the SportKa falls under the latter. The ad does not help matters by depicting the SportKa as an unapologetic assassin of avian beings. So what is Ford telling us? You should buy the SportKa if you hate birds? Are bird-watchers not allowed to buy it?

Green-hearted people tend to take matters into their own hands. Just ask bus operators and SUV owners in the UK what they have had to put up with: vandalism and hippy groups chaining themselves to those vehicles are just some of the tactics used. So in one fell swoop, Ford stones two birds with one kill, putting SportKa owners in the limelight and under the wrath of eco-mentalists. Buy a SportKa and see what we will do to your car, you can almost hear them snarling.

Volkswagen Passat

This one is even harder to tell where the agency missed the mark. There is a test driver on a test track, driving a Passat. Somewhere, there is a man in a white coat holding a remote kontrol (this is German, remember?).

As the driver goes through the course, a series of obstacles are thrown his way by the scientist (I presume), obstacles that include a klockwerke hedgehog — the driver goes round this at speed in a fantastic display of chassis balance and thus passing the elk test I talked about earlier.

A human form in a bikini emerging from the undergrowth fails to distract him — oh how engaging it is to be at the helm of the Passat, not even a bikini-clad woman can distract you from the pleasure. Having just disregarded the skimpily dressed temptress, he returns to the road ahead just in time to see a pram roll right into his path, upon which he drops the anchors and the car comes to a picture-perfect ABS-supported standstill, inches shy of the perambulator.

No animals were harmed in the making of this video. It was made very clear that the Passat’s handling and stopping abilities are exceptional, which they probably are, so no fudging of facts there. So what’s the problem?

Rewind the tape. Hedgehog is nicely avoided, no understeer, no oversteer, controlled body roll. Human in beach wear appears from the bushes, but after a quick glance the driver goes back to his driving. Pram emerges, possibly bearing someone’s child and the… wait a minute, what was that again about the bushes? It is wearing a bikini, sure, but at second glance, it turns out not to be a woman. It is not even a man. It is a headless mannequin with hips and breasts. What gives?

Now the questions arise. Was the driver supposed to be distracted by a sexily dressed plastic doll? If yes, what does that say about German drivers, or worse, drivers of Passats worldwide? Have they no need for women or is it that they cannot get any? Truth be told, the first two generations of VW Passat were not likely to garner you attention from the fairer sex, seeing how bland they were compared to its competitors — the BMW (Be My Wife) 3 Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes C Class.

Given the might of the Volkswagen Group, could they not come up with a real flesh and blood woman to do the job? It is hard to train a hedgehog to wander into the path of a hard-charging German car, script or no script, so we will overlook that.

And, forgiving the judgmental assumptions made about German/Passat drivers’ bedroom preferences, what will happen when a real woman in a bikini emerges from the bushes, seeing as to how the driver was unfazed by a lady crash test dummy?
Combine this with Daimler AG’s prank at the launch of the previous E500 Mercedes, and you will see German car companies are not doing their nationals any favours.

During new car launches, Mercedes tends to dilute the techno-babble with a bit of humour. So when they released the E500 (many years after the Passat ad), they thought it would be funny to sneak a couple of crash test dummies into the audience. That, and the Passat ad show a poorly concealed fascination with plastic dolls, putting German men in a rather awkward position.

It must be clear by now that my next two lists will be of the best car advertisements ever, and the worst.

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