The Future of Automobile Advertising? I’m Seriously Worried.

Today, we’re in the midst of a maelstrom around general propulsion. Before the introduction of the electric car, we hadn’t really changed the way we got around since the Model T.


Adam Wohl
Executive Creative Director Sterling Rice Group

Sterling-Rice Group
Full Service
Boulder, United States
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The future of automobile advertising?

I’m seriously worried.

Why? I’m a car guy. 

The first inanimate objects I ever loved in my life were cars. The only toys I wanted: Little cars, pedal cars, slot cars, a rotating, magnetic tabletop box with a plastic steering wheel where your car drove in circles through streets of a miniature town – remember that? Of course not, because you’re not a car-obsessed nut like me. When I was five, my dad (who was a CD at Ogilvy in L.A. and worked the Hot Wheels account), brought home a new Hot Wheels car every day. I spent my high school years in L.A., and at seventeen, I bought and fixed up a 1966 Ford Fairlane 500XL convertible with a 490 engine that was so fast my mom wouldn’t ride in it. Glorious. Today I live in Boulder, where the sky is big and the highway lanes are plentiful. You can’t wipe the smile off my face; I’m a car guy.

Today, we’re in the midst of a maelstrom around general propulsion. Before the introduction of the electric car, we hadn’t really changed the way we got around since the Model T. And whether as inspiration to evolve conveyance, or to combat pollution, we’re looking at the end of our dependence on gas and the evolution of electric at the speed of Moore’s Law on steroids.

But as it pertains to advertising, that’s not the big problem. The big problem is the perception of car ownership as a whole…and that younger generations don’t see a problem at all. You see, most young people aren’t car guys (or gals.) They care less about driver’s licenses, more about passports. They’re less interested in car ownership. More about services like Uber or Lyft or carpools like Chariot or Shuddle.


Those who do actually buy, want convenience, with shared ownership, or the ability to rent out their own cars and flexible ownership plans, like those offered by Cadillac and Polestar. From a sustainability standpoint, I get it. But ironically, from an emotional place, it feels to me like acts of a throwaway society. Share my car? Are you crazy? Cars have names. History. Stories.

I believe that brands in parity categories can only break through via a product revolution or an emotional revolution. The aforementioned car industry developments provide the younger generation both: a user experience with less commitment, less hassle, potentially less cost, and sustainability -- that’s a product revolution. A brand that shows it cares about providing these things potentially makes an emotional connection and creates a tribe.


What’s missing? How about the joy of driving? Pride of ownership? Freedom without limits?

Is it enough? Jury’s still out.

To their credit, the big providers of the elevated driving experience (Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, even Ferrari) have heard and responded to the cry for environmental consciousness, but if that’s their storyline at the cost of neglecting the joy, pride and freedom in driving, we’re in trouble. What doesn’t help is that the three deliver nearly identical advertising messages: The Ultimate Driving Machine; The Best, or Nothing; There is No Substitute. When they all say the same thing, they all say nothing.


My two-cents - don’t say. Show.

Put an impressionable millennial in the most visceral experience you can. Try to create a scenario worthy of a desire to emulate it. Seen a Daniel Craig Bond film? If you don’t want an Aston Martin DBS, you may not have a heartbeat. John Woo’s short film with Clive Owen for BMW? Or the original Transporter. Talk about stoking desire.

What I have a hard time imagining is a short Hitchcockian film about an innocent man or woman caught up in international intrigue, who tries to get away from the clutches of the baddies in a beat up, smelly Honda Accord ZipCar. Let’s face it; the hero would likely get killed trying to use the membership card to get the doors unlocked.

I’ve used ZipCars. I used VIA and Uber when I lived in New York City. They key to this (like it is for most things I love), is moderation. Recognize that there are places conducive to ride share and partial car ownership. Understand that there are people who simply have their priorities elsewhere. The new car usage model UX works for them and they should know about it. But don’t forget the need to reach us purists who live to put our right foot down, throwing caution (and potential uncomfortable conversations with the Highway Patrol) to the wind. With the ghost of Steve McQueen as my witness, I will never stop my love of the open road or my desire to advertise that joy to others. I can’t; I’m a car guy.