I-RECALL: Spotlight On - Cars and the Internet. Online car advertising is best for brand-building, not selling. BMW's 5 Series campaign complements offline work in style, Alasdair Reid says

The TV spot for Barclays' online shopping mall, Indigo Square,

isn't the first commercial to attempt a funny pay-off playing on our

worst e-commerce nightmares. Yes - the one with all those


Funny. But perhaps, in the long run, not that funny. It's now widely

recognised that the biggest barrier to growth in e-commerce is the

widespread fear that it could go horribly wrong. In hindsight it was

perhaps spookily prescient of Vauxhall to beat Barclays to the punchline

by several months.

Remember the one with the boffin-bearded Griff Rhys-Jones doing a

double-take as a car transporter full of Vauxhall product turns up at

his front door?

That, you could argue, was tempting fate in all sorts of ways. Because

the web certainly isn't shifting transporters full of cars. Last week it

emerged that the online car retailer Direct Line's jamjar.com has spent

pounds 10 million in advertising to stimulate an awesome total of 500

car sales a month. Let's spell that out. Five hundred.

What happened to the theory that the web was going to be a vigorous

battleground for car companies? It was expected that the automotive

sector was going to ride to the rescue of the online advertising medium

this year. It was going to be at the forefront of using online ads not

just from a narrow return on investment perspective, but as a branding


Last year, some of the most innovative online advertising initiatives

came from car companies. Volvo launched its S60 model with a marketing

campaign that was wholly online. BMW's superstitial work for the 5

Series was one of the classiest examples of rich-media advertising to

appear on the internet so far. But must we now admit that the web isn't

a car-friendly marketing environment?

Well, not exactly. Last week, BMW launched a new online campaign, this

time for the M3 model, and it will be just as whizzy as last year's

campaign. The Bavarian car-maker, at least, has not been put off the web

- in fact, it's placing an even greater share of its budget online this


Is this wise? Tellingly, the work is not necessarily targeted at those

on the verge of buying a car. It's a continuation of BMW's approach to

offline advertising, with brand-building the primary goal. From a

creative point of view, the web is ideal for reinforcing the message

that BMW stands for technical excellence - the executions are certainly

cutting edge.

'Click-through isn't unimportant to us,' Russell Place, the head of

communications planning at WCRS, states. 'But we're certainly not

obsessed with it. It's merely a guide. The primary objective is brand


So is the BMW model the one to follow this year? Is click-through

becoming a secondary consideration? Not quite, argues Louisa Moya, an

account director at the new-media agency Good Technology, which has

counted Audi among its clients for years. 'It's clear that a huge number

of people considering buying a car will go to the web and do some

research before they even consider going to a dealer,' she says. 'And

leads coming from the internet will be more qualified - you'll know

things like who they are, what car they are driving currently and what

car they are interested in buying. Tracking shows that online ads work

well in attracting people on to the site and advertisers such as Audi

promote the website in everything they do. If you develop your site as a

strong brand experience too, it works really well.'

Barry Cree, the director of strategy at Zenith Interactive Solutions,

says it all depends on your goals. The Griff Rhys Jones click-to-buy

scenario was always going to be a long shot. But the direct response

model still applies - not in terms of shifting product there and then

but for tempting people into the showroom.

'Buying a car is a big process and online can have a big part to play in

some stages of that process. Showrooms are alien places. They are

hard-sell environments yet the salespeople are often poorly informed

about all the options. So you can use the web to weigh up the options

and look at specifications. Then you can touch and feel at the showroom

and then you might want to look at the best price on the web again,'

Cree says.

So could the click-to-buy model still have life in it? Yes, Cree says:

'At that final stage, when you know exactly what you want and you're

looking at prices, if there was a mechanism for you to buy directly, you

might want to do it that way.'