Sometimes the problem with advertising a complex product is that the advertising ends up being complex, dry, unwatchable and lifeless. Or, as Brad Henson, group CD at Ford agency TeamDetroit puts it, "a brick." A brick is what you get when you make a campaign dense with technical content, and about as moving as plaster.
Could there be a better generator for that style of advertising than a gas/electric hybrid car? After all, there are tons of technical attributes to tout -- particularly fuel economy. Henson explained to a small press gathering at Manhattan Ford that agency almost fell for the brick. He said the creative team for the new C-MAX hybrid car had gone through so many immersions that in a sense, they knew too much, ending up snow-blind by the size of the task: launch a new vehicle, establish the name, explain the differences between C-MAX and direct competitor Prius v, define it as a real, fun, practical car and not a science experiment -- but also tout the vehicle's value, technology, and make the whole thing entertaining, and watchable with ads that break through the clutter. "We went at it in practical way, and worked on it for a year. But we didn't bring emotion because we were trying too hard."
They scrapped the ads and brought in a fresh creative team who knew as little as necessary about C-MAX. "Then we sent them away, and a couple of days later they came back, flipped open a computer and showed us a series of YouTube videos." The videos were from the world-famous 70's and 80's animated series "La Linea" from Italian artist Osvaldo Canandoli. In the U.S. the cartoons were shown on the kids show "Great Space Coaster." The line-drawing animation (think “Harold and the Purple Crayon”) involves an everyman with a Mr. Magoo nose who, when things get rough, begs the illustrator -- with cute vocalisms -- to come in deus ex machina to give him a hand, literally.
The new C-MAX campaign, which launched on Thursday, uses "La Linea" as a foil in a line-drawn storyline against a blue background. The idea is that it is simple, tells a story, and lets Ford fire salvos at Prius v without inadvertently touting Prius v, since both the Toyota car and the C-MAX are line-drawn profiles. "Basically, we flipped it around and made it more entertaining," said Benson. It's not all 2D. After about half of the spot, a real C-MAX seems to erupt through the animation's flat blue background onto a real urban street. The ads employ voiceover by actor Hank Azaria in which he speaks Dr. Seuss-like couplets about the virtues of the car versus Prius v, with a particular focus on C-MAX mileage: 47 mpg for both highway and city.
Henson says it took a little finagling to get the creative done. Quipos, which owns the rights to “La Linea,” insisted on doing the drawings for the ad by hand, cell by cell, so Ford had to do computer versions, then send them to Quipos, which then animated them. The new TV, print, out-of-home and interactive campaign launched Thursday, with two TV spots, an interactive campaign and a big print buy.
Michael O’Brien, electrification marketing manager at Ford, said there will be four total ads, plus a raft of print ads that use both "La Linea" imagery, beauty shots, and rhyming text. Print ads will run in the auto enthusiast vertical, plus higher-end East and West Coast lifestyle and literary pubs like Dwell, Whole living, Sunset, and New Yorker; travel and epicurean magazines like Departures, Traveler, and Eating Well and a range of opinion, news and business magazines. The television spots will run on CBS, Fox, ESPN, CNN and channels like Bravo, Discovery, Comedy Central, HGTV, DIY, and History.
"Previously we were just dipping our toe in this, but this is a major launch, fully integrated," said O'Brien, who added that there will also be a regional focus in urban markets with strong sales.
One of the more entertaining online elements is "Hybrid Games," an online comic video series comprising real-world battles between Prius v and C-MAX depicted as a pro-sports type battle royale. It also features a pair of feckless "Wide World of Sports" anchors who narrate proceedings with jocular ineptitude. One episode has the two cars competing on which can best pass an 18-wheeler on a two-lane road. The anchors disparate the competitor's performance with kindness. When the Prius v can't seem to past the truck, one of the two says how nice it is that the Prius' driver doesn't get anxious and can just hang out there in the death lane (though he doesn't say "death lane").
C.J. O'Donnell, group marketing manager for electrification at Ford, said C-MAX and the forthcoming C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid are among six electrified products to have been launched by year's end, and part of a lineup of eight that deliver over 40 mpg. "And they are among ten that have leadership in their category for fuel economy," he said.
Ford sold about 1,000 C-MAX's last month, per O'Donnell. "We are seeing positive cross-shop versus Prius v. and turnaround is about a third of what's available to dealers, which is good," he said.