Turbo-charge car ads

Competition in the automotive sector is at an all-time high. Finding a strategic edge will make all the difference. ADRIAN FERNANDES looks at four strategies that lift car ads above the crowd

Key Take-Outs

  • A flexible creative strategy cuts-through
  • Sharing the corporate vision builds brand association
  • Campaigns targeting new customers work better than brand-loyalty messages
  • A balance between the emotional and the rational lifts a print campaign

Two print ads for prestige car brands, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, were tested with readers through ADvance, our creative benchmarking service. They performed well in terms of improving brand affinity, with the Mercedes-Benz also encouraging call to action. Click here for the full report.


Although results were positive, they could have been better. Reader feedback scratched the surface of a real challenge for the category: getting noticed.

Neither ad stood out particularly well. As one reader said: “The majority of car ads are cluttered with numbers, dates and pending deadlines. They turn me right off. I don’t bother reading them.” Another commented: “All car ads look the same to me.”

The IPA Auto Ad Effectiveness Study

Readers may feel this way because the number of car brands in the market has risen considerably in recent times. Consequently, they are being exposed to more car advertising on TV, in print and on digital platforms than ever before. So, how should manufacturers and dealers respond.

Take a look in the rear view mirror.

A strong history

Car brands are responsible for some of the greatest ads of all time, so it’s not as if the category doesn’t offer the potential for greatness

In fact, influential American marketing magazine Advertising Age voted this campaign by Volkswagen from 1959 as the best advertising campaign of the 20th century.


With such a strong tradition of producing quality ads, car brands are in the enviable position of being able to look at previous campaigns to see what makes a great car ad.

That’s exactly what UK advertising body, the IPA, has done.

It recently commissioned a review of automotive ad studies to identify the traits of a commercially successful campaign.

Here’s a summary of what they found.

Flexibility is key

More than any other category, car ads are most at risk of falling into cliché “with laboured shots of leather interiors, alloy wheels and slick body work”.*

The IPA study finds commercially successful campaigns move beyond promoting product features and price.

Most commercially successful campaigns are loosely defined with creative agencies granted the freedom to produce a variety of executions within the same campaign.

Readers, says the research, are less likely to ignore a campaign if it is executed in different ways.

Here are examples of three different Land Rover print ads published within weeks of each other, two brand ads and one retail ad.

Each execution for their Discover model is different from the others, while keeping common elements, such as the font and logo to link the ads to the brand.




Share Your Vision for Quality

“Vorschprung durch technik” – Audi

“The Power of Dreams” – Honda

“Oh What a Feeling!” – Toyota

“The Ultimate Driving Machine” – BMW

All of these slogans are as familiar as the brand logos they accompany.

It is hard to overstate the power of a tagline tied to a brand.

BMW, for example, replaced “The Ultimate Driving Machine” with “Joy” in 2010. It created such an uproar that they revived “The Ultimate Driving Machine” two years later.

bmw ult

Audi reacted brilliantly with a print creative that took a swipe at one of their main competitors.


The IPA study finds that successful car ads incorporated the brand’s corporate vision. Including brand slogans into print ads can lift association and help readers more easily identify which car brand is being advertised.

Embrace the “New”

Campaigns aiming to recruit new customers in preference to retaining loyalty, are three times more effective, according to the IPA research.

Volvo recently produced a print campaign that unambiguously targets new customers.


Emotion alone won’t work

Successful car campaigns use emotion to great effect. They play on the important role that a car can have in your life – it offers to provide a self-image: it reflects who you are, or who you might want to be.

Emotion alone does not sell cars. This is a big investment and buyers seek rational reasons to justify a purchase.

Balancing the emotional and the rational is difficult but not impossible.

Here’s a recent print campaign from Subaru that incorporates emotion and reason, combining images of a happy family holiday with a very practical servicing program.

Subaru emotional

The IPA research found that creative flexibility, shared vision, targeting new customers, and combining emotion with rational points pay huge dividends for advertisers. Incorporating these principals in a strategy will lift a car brand above the competition and, ultimately, put buyers of the showroom floors. Click here to see

The complete IPA study, conducted by Andy Nairn, can be found here:


* Audi IPA case study 2008, quoting Superbrands Volume VI.

An infographic highlighting auto-advertising fast facts. Download the PDF here.


Click here to download the infographic.
Click here to view an ADvance report that tests print creative for two prestige auto brands.

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