John Meszaros is the Hungarian who helped make Audi’s ’Vorsprung
durch Technik’ part of the language. Here, he assesses car ads of ten
years ago and today, and finds today’s ads lacking.
Campaign’s deputy editor Caroline Marshall wrote to me: ’We’d like you
to write a piece on car advertising now and ten years ago ... our thesis
is that car advertising of today is more memorable for its weight of
spend than its emotional values or strong ideas.’
As I only sort of agree, I changed the brief to the question: does car
advertising of today work better, worse or just differently from that of
a decade ago?
It is certainly different and, with some notable exceptions, a great
deal worse. Why? Was it inevitable? Who, if anybody, is to blame? I will
try to answer these questions in the certain knowledge that at least
half of all car clients and their agencies will disagree strongly.
The recent history of the UK car market has been turbulent. During this
period, I managed the marketing of Audi and Volkswagen and felt the full
brunt of these violent market fluctuations.
For practically the whole of the 80s car companies enjoyed a steady
growth in sales - 1.5 million at the beginning of the decade, rising to
2.3 million in 1989. Then disaster struck. In two years, sales fell to
just under 1.6 million - a 30 per cent drop that was financially
unpalatable and demoralising for an industry that was so accustomed to
The recession hit hard. Car makers reorganised, cut jobs and trimmed
their financial commitment to the business to the bare minimum. After
two years in the doldrums, the recovery began in 1993 and the magical
figure of two million sales was recovered in 1996.
While all this was going on, most car makers were forging ahead with
product development and innovations. Product features that were rare in
1986 - such as turbo and 16-valve engines, four-wheel drive, ABS, air
conditioning - are commonplace today. New models were introduced - more
sports cars, more leisure cars, MPVs and off-road cars. Companies from
the Far East entered the UK market.
Today the new car buyer faces a choice which is many times greater and
infinitely more complex than ever before. There are more than 40
different manufacturers out there.
This fierce competition has brought major changes in consumer
Private buyers - who represent about 40 per cent of total car sales -
are influenced by advertising and consumer groups. Not only do they want
a new car, they expect freebies, deals and discounts as well. They are
more promiscuous. Fleet car buyers know what sort of deal they want and
their loyalty depends mainly on where they get the best one.
In such a changing market it is no surprise that advertising has had to
find new ways of working through all this.
Is there too much car advertising? My gut reaction is to say there is,
but I am rather more concerned about what the campaigns say and how they
say it. In May last year, Campaign ran a feature headlined ’Are car
advertisers wasting money?’. It mentioned that pounds 500 million was
spent on car advertising in 1995.
I question the way this money is spent. If the biggest problem for car
advertisers is breaking through all the clutter, the clutter is mostly
of their own making.
I also did a little private research. On TV, as far as I can tell, in
the whole of 1986 the car industry used 84 different commercials and,
even though that was ten years ago, I remember a number of them with
reasonable accuracy. In the first six months of this year around 160
commercials were used. I can’t recall too many of them - either I did
not see them at all or not often enough or they were simply very
But some advertisers seem able to reach me with great regularity. If
they can do it, why can’t the others?
Newspaper ads are no better. The constant frenzy of offers drowns
everything else. In the 8 June issue of the Mail on Sunday on page 21
there’s a 0 per cent finance ad for Vauxhall, on page 22 there’s a
spread for a Hyundai Accent MV1 and on the next page an Escort ad with
ten cars all for one price, plus 0 per cent finance plus free
I know the media world is much more complex than it was in 1986 but some
car manufacturers seem to be able to navigate their way around the
difficulties and find a way through. We used to plan and negotiate a
long way in advance the key elements of our media plan. What I see out
there looks very much like short-term buying. Maybe it looks worse than
it is. Maybe it’s part of getting ready for the August new
There was another quote in Campaign’s piece that interested me. John
Ewans, of Autocar & Motor, said: ’The car’s image is everything.
Anything that a manufacturer can do to improve that image is money well
spent because the long-term benefits are so great.’
This should be true - the reality is there are few car companies that
seem to value their brand assets and put proper care and attention into
its maintenance. Brands are fragmenting, companies are treating their
cars as commodities, with Ford and Vauxhall leading the way, emphasising
model, price, features and offers. Maybe market leaders have to do this
sort of fancy footwork marketing to stay ahead of the rest and to
maintain the status quo between each other. My instinct says they are
wrong. I liked the idea when every model they made was, first and
foremost, a Ford or a Vauxhall.
So how do the manufacturers put all this across in their
In the newspapers, the first I came across was for the Ford Fiesta
promoting the Twenty First at pounds 7,595, the Fusion at pounds 8,795,
the Flight at pounds 9,995, and the Chicane at pounds 10,995. See what I
mean? Then there is more Ford advertising for the Ka, the Puma, the
Mondeo, and the Mondeo Verona which is ’a breeze at only pounds 229 per
month’. Looking further, I came across the Marine, the San Diego, the
Niagara, the Mischief, not one but two Desires, the Temptation and some
others. A little like selling sweeties, really.
As for posters, here are some of the gems I came across on an hour’s
drive. ’The new Renault Megane RT Sport ... It talks your language’ (the
car is shown parked in front of the Cafe des Sports with a guy reading a
You see France and not the car). ’Nothing moves you like a Citroen ...
As recommended by the bloke upstairs’ (Blue Citroen Saxo on black,
circled by fire. Lots of different typefaces). ’New from Toyota. The
most desirable Corolla ever’ (that must have taken a while to think up).
’Astra Vectra ... free air-conditioning and 0 per cent finance’ (oh
joy). ’All men are equal.
All cars are not’ (so there). For the Honda Tornado: ’Land one for
pounds 9,995.’ It is for ’The limited edition Civic Tornado.’ (get it?).
’First man then machine’(was added, perhaps, because there was some
You may have the impression by now that I don’t like any of the
marketing ideas or any ad campaigns. Not so. Thanks to New Labour
inspiring consumer confidence, the car market will probably be the
biggest - but the most expensive - for many years.
As for the ad campaigns I like, I admire BMW’s marketing strategy and
its advertising by WCRS. Everything is straight, it always looks good
and what is said in the ads always strokes the self-esteem of BMW
I like Audi too. Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s new campaigns are worthy
successors to the great ’Vorsprung durch Technik’ ads of the past. Volvo
is rejuvenating its product offering. Volvo cars - and its ads - have
always been on the safe side, but now the ads are beginning to be
exciting too. The curvy, arty print ads do worry me a little - for me,
Volvos should not be prettified.
The DDB ’surprisingly ordinary prices’ campaign for Volkswagen by BMP
has thrown up some stunning executions and is strategically and
tactically correct. A great invention. Two of the new Passat films are a
pleasure to see.
Peugeot is going for sex appeal with some nice films but I still prefer
the classic older ones. However, the branding is clear.
With Renault, the Clio campaign is looking a little tired and, as for
the Megane, I cannot find anything good to say about its launch
Ka, Puma, Fiesta. The cars - and the ads for each by Ogilvy & Mather and
Young & Rubicam - are all different. But I can’t find any uniting line
or hint that says Ford to me.
Rover advertising - by Ammirati Puris Lintas - is improving. I am not
sure about ’relax’ but my instinct is that the agency is trying hard,
even though the ’hostage’ film had to be pulled.
Accepting and encouraging change is part of the advertising
Some changes are for the better, others are negative. Looking in from
the outside I perceive some worrying trends.
In this year’s ads there is the impression that some agencies either
seem to not know intimately, or do not wish to know, the product they’re
advertising. And that may be why, apart from the exceptional campaigns,
most of the other stuff looks too samey.
When I was a client we treated our agencies as partners and business
advisers. We disagreed frequently, we had some really good fights, but
we respected for each others’ views. It made our lives easier, we had
more fun, we got better advertising and it was good for our business.
When I see the ads of today I wonder how many agencies and clients have
that kind of relationship.
A lot of the ads had the aura of being written by the client and ably
made by the agency, the master and servant scenario.
What I always liked about working with agencies was being surprised.
So, creative people, please show me things that I’ve not seen
As for this year’s work, it mirrors exactly the confusing, frantic and
disorderly nature of the car market itself.
John Meszaros joined Volkswagen in 1968 as a car cleaner. He became
dealer development manager and was head of marketing for Audi and
Volkswagen from 1974 to 1992. When a restructuring persuaded him that it
was time to go, he began a four-year stint as a creative for DDB in
Germany; the first commercial he wrote won a lion at Cannes. Jerry
Judge, then chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, once said of Meszaros:
’You couldn’t hope for a better client than John. He has a great
understanding of the emotional values inside a piece of metal.’