What are they driving at?

There have been both good and bad TV advertisements since the medium first came into existence, and Hugh Pearman has reservations about the current crop

It will be interesting to see the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Rewind exhibition on classic design and advertising this winter – the best of the D&AD Award-winners over the past 40 years. It’s the ads that will pull in the crowds. But never mind classic commercials. Never mind ‘Cool as a mountain stream’ Consulate, or going to work on an egg, or the eyepatch-wearing man in the Hathaway shirt. What about the truly rubbish ads you’d rather forget?

By this I don’t mean those that fall into the ‘so bad they’re good’ category. Sing-along slogans such as ‘This is luxury you can afford, by Cyril Lord’. Or ‘1001, cleans a big, big carpet for less than half a crown’. If you remember those, then you are like me. For us, cookability will always be the beauty of gas, it is forever the age of the train, and a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play. As a child, I used to chorus this nonsense until my parents suggested it might be better for my health and their sanity if I shut up. This condition is clearly genetic. My children, for instance, have gone further. They ignore all the well-made arty ads, or even the maddeningly jingly ones, in favour of the incredibly low-budget ones that appear on telly in the late afternoons. Particularly – because these are the creakiest – those from financial companies.

‘Want a low-cost loan at your convenience? Call Lombard Direct,’ they shout. Or even: ‘Lloyds TSB? How may I help you?’ They do this as a wry acknowledgment of badness, a perverse exaltation of the hideously mundane. They do not regard these ads as good or clever. They have little concept of the low-cost loan, and in later life they will ignore Lombard Direct, just as I have never bought a bottle of 1001 carpet cleaner in my life. As to what Cyril Lord’s affordable luxury consisted of, I have no idea.

But sometimes an ad comes along that is so bad, in every way, that the whole industry ought to hang its head in collective shame. Let us then consider, in some detail, the current TV ad for the Toyota RAV 4, an SUV or Sports Utility Vehicle. The ad opens in suburbia. A boy on a bike delivers newspapers, hurling them at peoples’ doorways as he cycles along. Some land in hedges or birdbaths. One hits a cat. Then a paper comes flying back. It hits the delivery boy. He wobbles off-screen. You hear him fall off his bike. As he picks himself up, a woman pulls out of her driveway. The kids in the back seat tell you she’s a mum. She is driving a RAV4. It is she who threw the paper back. She smiles and drives off. The catchline pops up: ‘Still a bit rebellious?’

Presumably the creative team is trying to get across the idea that suburban mums who drive this Toyota SUV are rebels at heart, otherwise they’d drive something boring, like a Maserati. A dumb idea – no-one who drives a Toyota can possibly be a rebel, unless they’ve just stolen one at knifepoint. But the creatives fail even in this modest aim. Because what you take away from the ad is this: people who drive Toyotas are disturbed individuals, who like knocking boys off their bikes, and who clearly should have their licences removed.

That’s the main flaw. The others are detail. No-one in Britain delivers newspapers in that American way. Newspapers aren’t tiny, rigid tubes, as depicted here. They’re large, floppy things that can’t be flung. Then again, if the woman in question objected to having her papers hurled at her, she’d presumably not ask to have them delivered in the first place. She would drive her RAV4 to the shop to buy one.

Of course, none of this would matter if the ad was well-made, because the glory of a good ad is that you are indulgent towards the most wildly implausible storyline. A man caught in a volcanic eruption is prepared to walk across molten lava in bare feet in order to pour two pints of Guinness? That one is brilliantly shot and directed. The product clearly has valuable, even mystic properties. And I can’t stand Guinness, so that’s saying something.

In contrast, Toyota’s campaign ignore

s and demeans the product. It has many of the characteristics of other ads of today, which vaunt overt selfishness and the hurtful putting-down of others, yet it can’t get even that hackneyed formula right. Another bad current car campaign – for the Ford Fusion, an ugly beast – has just one selling point: the car is quite tall, compared to some others. That’s it. But at least it’s something. As for the Toyota ad agency, its message is: with this car, you can injure a child and laugh as you do so. If this ever finds fame in a V&A retrospective, it will be as an all-time turkey.

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