Sex And Speed: An Advertiser’s Long Lost Friend

sexandspeedSex and speed, the two favourite themes of car advertisers, had a rough ride in the early 90s. Complaints poured into the Advertising Standards Authority about high-performance ads. The idea that a man with the right set of wheels had sex appeal fell victim to the charms of airbags, responsibility and more inspired advertising.

The work for the 1993 launch of the Nissan Micra supermini — award-winning bubble-shaped line drawings–seemed to mark a change in direction. The media buying, as well as the creative, was different. Ads popped up everywhere — in classifieds, horoscopes, weather, sports and business sections. The TV, newspaper and poster campaign, through TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie, helped sell more than 300 cars a day in its first week.

Other ads took car marketing further from the sex and speed heritage and firmly into lifestyle positioning. Renault’s Papa and Nicole saga through Publicis made a compelling soap opera; even DMB&B’s Fiat Cinquecento ad showed young people having a laugh instead of sex.

But three current car ads — all from French marques, all storybased — suggest a change in tone. Irritatingly, for the French car makers, this is France through the eyes of the English. By employing franglais lifestyle cliches, the ads revert to the idea that the pulling power of a vehicle has little to do with the tow hook and everything to do with the toe rag at the wheel.

The work that most clearly demonstrates this shift is for Peugeot, with its brazen ad for the 306 through Euro RSCG.

The film features a man and a woman meeting in an underground car park. After some suggestive shots, the couple begin to undress on a beach. We discover that the unknown woman is in fact the wife and mother of twins. What seemed to be a chance encounter culminating in casual sex turns out to have been the story of two well-adjusted 90s parents whose lively relationship permits them to be turned on by their car.

“The use of sex in that commercial is less than subtle — to the point of gratuity,” one competitor says, muttering darkly about Broadcast Advertising Copy Clearance generosity.

The ad comes in pre-(“romantic”) and post-watershed (“passionate”) versions after a series of tussles with the BACC. But Euro RSCG’s executive creative director, Mark Wnek, insists that the sex is not gratuitous. “There’s more sex than there used to be in our 306 ads, but that’s because they’re sexy cars. I’m not using sensational values to sell the vehicle. The style springs from the product itself.”

Euro RSCG’s work for its other car client, Citroen, also links cars explicitly with sex appeal. The ad for the 18-month-old Xantia shows Henry, the office idiot and no-life buffoon, being tossed the Xantia keys by a patronising boss with instructions to “drive Sarah home for me”. Between long, drooling camera shots of the car and a cutesy beach scene, which is supposed to denote unbridled passion, the boss beats Henry home.

It is hard to tell who comes off worse — the speechless woman who is there to be driven and controlled, the nerd or the cuckold. The answer, of course, is none of them–the car is the hero.

Renault’s ad for the Laguna, the model which replaced the Renault 21, gets a few more points for wit and ambiguity. Is the driver a philanderer or a dutiful hubbie arranging a reunion for his wife and her friends? And who is that frantic woman pacing underneath the station clock in the closing shot?

The serious point is that all three ads risk patronising women at a time when they are becoming an increasingly important target in the fight for market share. Between 1975 and 1990, the number of women with driving licences doubled. Women buy 35 per cent of all new and used cars without consulting men. In the smaller car sector, which includes the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and the Peugeot 205, 75 per cent of all purchasers are women.

The first and most important lifestyle TV ad reflecting these changes was the Volkswagen Golf campaign, which featured an executive woman who casts away her fur and jewellry, but not her car keys, when leaving her lover. But Jorian Murray, board account director at Volkswagen’s agency, BMP DDB Needham, thinks Volkswagen is at a crossroads: “It was inevitable that the three French car makers should follow each other down the same route. The question now is whether we carry on doing lifestyle advertising or change direction.”

Renault’s communications director, Phil Horton, says that while the Laguna ads may harness sex appeal, they are more about establishing Renault cars in the marque’s “voiture a vivre” or “cars for life” territory: “Sex isn’t central to the soap opera theme. The important thing is that the ads show that our cars help people to live better lives. We get as many letters about the priest as we do about Nicole.”

“Car advertisers have learned from the Corsa backlash to look for campaigns that work towards a long-term benefit for the model and the brand,” Tim Grace-McDonald, the Renault board account director at Publicis, argues. “I suspect that the re-emergence of sex in car ads has more to do with the potential for story-based ads and the success of the Papa/Nicole saga than it has to do with sex appeal.”

But tell that to the feminists.

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