OPINION: PERSPECTIVE - Why car advertisers prefer quantity over quality

It is early on a Sunday morning. The radio is on full blast. The washing machine is roaring on a fast spin cycle. Two small boys are wrestling noisily on the floor. I am trying to have a conversation about what we are going to do today with my husband.

I am doing the most taboo thing that you can do as the editor of an advertising magazine. I am blatantly consuming ads with four other things going on, just like consumers do.

In spite of years spent talking to people who spend their lives second-guessing consumers and turning it into marketing plans, I rarely put myself so firmly in the shoes of a consumer when consuming ads. Talking to advertising people kicked from pillar to post by 22-year-old brand managers who cannot even write effective briefs, I never dared. I always felt it was only right to give their efforts my full attention. It was the very least I could do.

Still, we all know that millions of other people will have experienced their Sunday magazine supplement in just the same way, with four other things going on. I have written "Sunday magazine supplement", I have not identified the particular title I was leafing through, for all Sunday supplements are essentially the same. They are what Brian Braithwaite (the old doyen of NatMags) used to call the publishing equivalent of airline food - in both instances only consumed because it happens to be in front of you.

Travel ads all look the same. So do most technology/camera ads. But car ads in Sunday supplements are the very worst. The anonymity of these ads is so profound - in art direction and tone of voice - they might be Everyad.

They exist in a cheerless netherworld between Bose Wave radio ads, Stannah stairlifts and mail-order geraniums (ten for £2.95!). They are wedged into incongruous editorial about to-die-for interior design and Alexander McQueen fashion shoots. In any advertising market such determined lack of originality would deserve criticism; but in cars, because of the sheer scale of the spend, it is enough to make you double up with laughter.

Take a calculator to the issue and the case against such advertising merely deepens. Nielsen Media Research indicates £34 million spend in 2003 in supplements by motor manufacturers. This equates to 11 per cent of the £306 million total and a whopping 2,925 pages a year. Second only to £62 million for the mail-order sector, car ads add gloss, aspiration and enough pagination to give the magazine some sort of thud factor.

Indeed the density of car ads in the magazine in question - take your pick from VW, Subaru, Toyota Corolla, Lexus, Mazda - makes the whole thing almost like a retail park where you have to have some sort of presence in order to maintain an effective share.

One wonders whether the ads are there not to reach consumers but to placate dealers. So much a part of advertisers' thinking, they are comforted when they see metal, lots of it. Check out three of the worst offenders in any Sunday supplement - and you realise that most weeks they will not be disappointed.

All of these factors perpetuate the herd approach to media. The "we must do the obvious things in order to be seen to be playing the game" approach. I guess the issue is whether the advertisers mentioned above are only doing the obvious things in their press advertising. Judging from my experience so far, and lacking any other evidence, I suspect most of them are.


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