Home » Breaking Down the Typical Car Ad

Breaking Down the Typical Car Ad

My son wrote an amazing car ad right off the top of his head. He did it in response to the boring-to-downright-excruciatingly-bad car ads we were seeing while watching football over the weekend.

You know the kind of car ad I’m talking about.

  1. It starts with a close up of the curves and shiny paint job of some new car while a voice talks in hushed tones about beauty or design or craftsmanship.
  2. Then you see the full vehicle driving on a winding road through the mountains or doing donuts on the salt flats of Utah or cruising through some generic downtown while the words “professional driver on a closed circuit” flash briefly at the bottom of the screen.
  3. Then the vehicle is parked. If it is an SUV it is on top of a mountain with a panoramic view. If it is a sedan or sports car then it is shot from above looking down on the car with a city landscape in the background. (Or in Buick’s case – both!)
  4. Then big numbers flash on the screen with a bunch of small print, and a voice telling you in rapid-fire, small-print kind of speech that if you work for the company you can get some amazing deal on a lease or something like that.

Outside of the testimonial ads*, isn’t that pretty much 80-90% of the car ads out there?

Let’s break down what these ads are telling you.

Scene 1, the opening shot, is supposed to subliminally suggest sex. The hushed tones, the close-ups, the reveal-a-little-but-not-the-whole-thing. Yeah, that’s the tease to get you interested. The problem is that most of the vehicles tend to be morphing into each other to the point you can’t tell them apart without their logo. Right now Mazda is running an ad where the vehicle is completely covered on the outside while people test drive it and then they reveal the logo at the end to the driver’s surprise. If you can’t tell a Mazda from a BMW by the shape of the car, does design really matter that much? For years now Buick has been running ads about how people can’t even recognize that the car is a Buick. So much for design branding.

Scene 2, the driving sequence, shows the car going through its paces, not your paces. You won’t ever get to do donuts on the salt flats or go speeding around traffic-free, hairpin turns in the mountains. You’d like to do that. But you won’t. You aren’t a “professional driver on a closed circuit”. How does it handle stop-and-go traffic during rush hour? How tight is the turning radius for pulling into the parking lot at Costco? How bad are the blind spots when you’re backing up out of the drive? For 99% of the buyers, that’s more relevant than mountain driving, anyway.

Scene 3, the parked vehicle, is the glamour shot. They all finish with the glamour shot. Supposedly this is so you can recognize their car from all the other similar looking cars when you finally go out to buy one. The shot signifies that we are nearing the end of the ad. This wouldn’t be bad if there had been some kind of story coming to an end. This wouldn’t be so bad if it actually was the end. But it isn’t.

The glamour shot is simply the background to Scene 4, the offer. Big, bold numbers and a bunch of fine print showing up telling you that if you work for the company and are approved you can get some version of this vehicle “right now” for only $999 down and $230 a month. This part of the ad drives me crazy.

First, the deal they are offering comes with pages of fine print, the first being you have to be an employee to get this deal. Really? You’re paying millions for this commercial to tell the 209,000 people of GM about a sale just for them? Why not send them an email and save a few million? Otherwise, you’re just telling the 317 million people who don’t work for GM that they will have to pay more.

Second, no one actually gets that deal. No one. The car has too many extra features or you aren’t fully approved with an 850 credit score.

Third, the deal takes away from any of the feelings the ad may have stirred (granted not many feelings, but still …). The ad goes from one about how sleek, sexy, powerful, luxurious, rugged, adventurous, green, and quiet the vehicle is to, “Hey, it’s on sale!!!!” The person looking for a deal doesn’t care about all those other adjectives. The person who cares about those adjectives is less concerned about the deal. The offer waters down the message for both groups.

No matter how you slice it, these ads don’t speak to your heart. They don’t tell you a compelling story. They try to make more points than anyone could remember. They look and sound like everyone else. Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep, Lexus, Nissan, even Kia are all spending millions without moving the needle.

When you go to create your ads for your business, do me one favor. Don’t fall into the trap of, “Well, the big companies do this so it must be right,” kind of thinking. I’ve just shown you how really big companies can do things incredibly wrong.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS *Even the Chevy ads with “real” people showing off their awards and using testimonials aren’t nearly as effective as they think. One study shows that more people find these kinds of ads less believable than find them more believable.

PPS Sorry. I just made it impossible for you to watch any more car ads without thinking about this post. Hopefully you’ll laugh more than cry about the absurdity of them all. Me? I die a little inside each time.

PPPS I went back and looked at the car ads from the UM football game. Lexus swaps out driving in the mountains with driving in a black gigantic showroom of some kind. Nissan shows cars driving on a football field. Like either of those is going to happen in real life.


  1. Linda Bell says:

    You make a great point, and the ad your son wrote is genius. He’s been listening to you. The ads that drive me nuts right now start with a manly voice asking “what kind of person do you want to be? Decent person, good father?” in a dismissive tone implying that this is weakness. It’s telling some kind of story, just targeted to a very small audience and offensive to (hopefully) many more. I appreciate your blog and hope things are looking up for you!

    • Phil Wrzesinski says:

      Yes, shame and guilt are two emotions used in ads frequently. I’m not a fan of them either. Big turnoff to me. Yes, they speak to the heart in some way, but if I were in charge of the brand, I would choose more positive emotions. Shaming someone into action is short-term and not built to last.

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