The Best Car Ad Ever!

First things first, let make it crystal clear that I am not remotely interested in cars as a subject for conversation, reading matter, TV coverage or anything else.  All I care about is that the car I am in gets me where I need to go in relative comfort, safety and hopefully good time.  While I might be in the market for a car from time to time, it will be for a family car. I have no interest in or knowledge of how it works, and I’m happy to let my wife lead the decision-making on this one.

Having no doubt called into question my all-round manliness for at least a portion of you reading this, I want to focus on what for me is without doubt the most compelling, engaging, brand-reinforcing, impactful and downright entertaining piece of “advertising” for any car ever produced (I think this qualifies as a “bold claim”).

Ironically enough, it comes to us with no input from an agency or communications specialist of any sort -- and even the brand owner will have had no say in the final product.  The marque in question is the Range Rover and the “ad” is a piece of content from a long-running BBC car program called “Top Gear” (premiered this week in the U.S. on BBC America).

“Top Gear” has an almost legendary standing for irreverent, brutally honest performance reviews, outlandish car-related pranks -- and an almost suicidal willingness on the part of the presenters to throw themselves into anything car-related that looks like fun and that will enable them to put a car through its paces for the edification of us, the viewing public.

Fronted by three anarchic but highly knowledgeable hooligans – all of whom are theoretically old enough to know better – the program is not only incredibly entertaining to those of us who may buy cars but really don’t want to waste a moment of our time on them, it also satisfies those who are genuinely interested in the relative performance of the latest models.  It is also probably the most hostile environment in which any marque can find itself tested.

The program hosts will merrily eviscerate any car that comes their way if it is found wanting.  As a BBC program, there is no pressure from any quarter to pander to the automotive industry in order to retain advertising dollars.  This program is all about reviewing the cars for the benefit of the consumers -- and having some fun along the way.  Very few cars (even the favored manufacturers of each of the presenters) seldom get away without any criticism, even if the overall review is good.

And that is what makes the program such valuable real estate for a marque that can take the heat.  As a context for any review, the program is completely untainted in the eyes of its large and loyal viewing audience – everyone knows that what you see is what you get from these guys, unfettered by commercial interest or political correctness.  And there are plenty of occasions when the manufacturers have winced in pain.

The important thing here is that when the reviews are good, they come from knowledgeable, trusted (and opinionated) experts – and it’s entertaining.  Though it would be a brave exec that recommended this show for product placement.

The Range Rover vs. Challenger Tank test of the car’s off-road handling following a makeover to a more sports-oriented design is a wonderful example of how it can work for a brand.  Suspecting that this redesign comes at the expense of the car’s renowned off-road handling, Jeremy Clarkson (the program’s hooligan-in-chief) takes on a Challenger Tank and its crew as he seeks to get from point A to point B across some serious ugly terrain without being lined up in the tank’s sites long enough to be blown to pieces (if they were firing for real, that is -- there are limits, after all).  Aside from being one of the most creative approaches I’ve seen to testing a car’s capabilities it’s also a genuinely tough test (the tank is the fastest in the world over rough terrain and the crew have no intention of cutting Clarkson any slack) and incredibly entertaining.

We get to see just what the car is capable of in the most graphic, exciting and engaging of ways.  Take ten minutes out to see what I mean and then tell me this isn’t great for the brand (tell your colleagues you’re researching future ad formats -- you are).

So not only do we have a great reinforcing context for this most powerful of product demos, we have independent endorsement and content that will work on VOD, online (self-evidently if you watch the clip), and just think what you could do in an interactive TV environment.

Interestingly, Range Rover took steps down this path years ago (1983 I think) when they launched the Discovery, by producing three-minute pieces that took the entire break and that were based around the exploits of contemporary explorers using the cars as they drove across deserts, through jungles, swamps and just about every other hostile driving environment you could think of.

But good though those spots were -- and ground-breaking for the time – the Range Rover vs Challenger Tank piece shows what really could be done if we were to let go of some of the desire to completely control everything about our brand communication and get onto the consumer’s side of the fence.  In many ways, we could look at this professionally (and expensively) produced piece as having the same degree of impartiality as a piece of user-generated content, but more credibility as it comes with the equity of “Top Gear,” Clarkson and his fellow presenters.

For my money this has got to be some of the most engaging brand-friendly content I’ve ever seen for any category.  I’d be prepared to bet that a clear majority of you who watch the clip at all will watch it all the way through  -- and of those, most will watch it more than once.  Oh, and you’ll be left with a pretty clear impression of the car’s handling capabilities, too.  Sounds like an effective ad to me.

Post Script:  If you want to see how the show’s presenters treat the cars they really don’t like, see what they did to the Lada -- and for a bit of fun (1.5 minutes), take a look at their final attempt to see if they could fool a speed camera.



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