Calm Down, Buick!

If there’s any activity at which we media folk truly excel, it’s trend-identification. Just look at the New York Times: One minute, one of its reporters falls asleep during a subway ride home and has to wait six minutes for an Uber in an outlying neighborhood. The next, the reporter mines the harrowing experience for trend gold - “Bushwick Burgers Trade Beef for Barley,” say, or “Mansplaining Man-Buns: Neo-Feminist Hair Theoretician Sets Up Shop in East LoSoHo.” Prospecting for trends is not for the meek of mind, nor for those who subscribe to archaic notions of statistical significance.

I nonetheless have some exciting news to announce: Umpteen years into my “career,” I believe I have sussed out my first-ever real-ish, zeitgeist-galvanizing trend - and it’s a media/marketing one to boot. I’ve chosen to call it “De-Expectationism.”

Its historical forbear: Domino’s, which launched a groundbreaking campaign in the late-aughts in which it acknowledged - celebrated, almost - the nutritional and granular deficiencies of its premier product (“our pizza used to taste like tomato-tinged mucus indiscriminately slathered on hemp cardboard and dotted with almost-cheese, but now it actually tastes like pizza, kind of”). Chevy picked up the deflated-expectations mantle from there, stripping its redesigned, Wi-Fi’d Malibu of all brand identity and asking “Real people. Not actors” to weigh in on camera (they were impressed, even managing to suppress their gag reflex once they learned the car wasn’t of European provenance).



Since three = trend, I had to sit on this mind-blowing discovery until another company with low self-esteem adopted a similar approach. And who should step in but our bland-brand pals at Buick? Long saddled with an old-mobile image, the automaker has started to push back. During football season, it ran a slew of ads in which comely non-grandparents happened upon Buicks and mistook them for other brands and models. “Wait, THAT’s a Buick? But its body is contoured! There aren’t any ergonomic safety rails! That slot looks way too narrow to accommodate an 8-track!” Etc.

You have to be pretty desperate - like, thinking-about-banishing-the-brand-to-the-realm-of-Saturn-and-Scion desperate - to poop all over a brand that, for all its struggles with younger buyers, still inspires a reasonable degree of loyalty. But that’s where Buick’s head is at as it attempts to court sprightly young’uns. The next volley in that strategy, of course, is one of those viral videos all the kids today are insta-texting about on their cellular smart computer phones.

From the outset, you sense that this isn’t going to end well. On one hand, Buick snared one of the most appealing entertainers on the planet - Ellie Kemper, she of the sunny squint and continent-wide grin - to lend enthusiasm and younger-generation cred to “Imagine Yourself in the New Buick.” Alas, then the company went and saddled her with a premise so broad and derivative that it drags her down with it.

In the clip, Kemper and a superhunk meet cute on the sidewalk, where Kemper pretends to be the owner of the Buick convertible parked nearby. The dude feeds her a compliment about how she could totally be a paid spokesperson for the car - hi, meta! - and we’re off into fantasy-sequence territory. Kemper envisions a future with the dude, with various Buicks serving their needs at various points in their life together.

There’s a hint of a fun premise in that second part, but “Imagine Yourself” tramples all over it. Every reaction in the video is triple-exaggerated, which plays against Kemper’s trademark happy obliviousness and reduces the clip to a series of wink-wink vignettes. Similarly, the deliberate oversell of each vehicle’s features is exhausting. When Kemper jumps into the back seat of one Buick model, she chirps, “Oh wow - roomy!” When her fantasy family joins her in another Buick model, she exclaims, “I feel so safe!” We get a nice clear glimpse of the cars - they look modern and well-appointed - but they come across as little more than additional scenery for the actors to chew.

Listen, only a complete churl wouldn’t appreciate the intensity with which Buick is attempting to redefine itself. And kudos to Buick for eschewing the half-assed approach taken by so many other, uh, legacy automakers. Buick is all-in on the what-we-were-isn’t-what-we-are brand reinvention; it isn’t just tacking on “look, we’ve got iPhone connectivity now!” to its existing efforts and hoping 20-somethings take note.

But that doesn’t mean Buick gets a pass for the forced mirth of “Imagine Yourself.” This is odd advice to be directing towards Buick; it’s probably the first time in marketing history that anybody directed this advice towards Buick. But really: Next time out, dial it down a few notches.

2 comments about "Calm Down, Buick!".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from, network, February 4, 2016 at 5:33 p.m.

    Those Buick ads remind me of the New Zealand travel posters on the band manager/NZ attache's office wall in Flight of the Conchords, with captions under the photos saying things like "New Zealand. Not too bad."

  2. Michael Blumfield from Michael Blumfield Business Communications, February 4, 2016 at 7:30 p.m.

    I was prepared to agree with you, but I actually think the spots are hysterical. "Dialing it down," as you suggested, would make them flat. I'm not sure they're going to sell more cars with these ads, but I wouldn't blame the spirit of the ads for that failure.

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