Skip to main content

5 Things I’ve Learned About Marketing From Bad Automotive Advertising

By May 7, 2012June 26th, 2015True Stories
5 Things I’ve Learned About Marketing From Bad Automotive Advertising

As a creative director in radio for about 12 years, I constantly railed against bad automotive advertising.  As a marketing and advertising professional, I found it embarrassing.  As a consumer, I found it insulting.  As a regular guy, I found it annoying.

One of my all-time favorite advertising quotes comes from Hugh MacLeod, who once said, “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.”  If you’ve ever had the urge to reach through the speakers of your radio and clean the clock of the announcer of an automotive radio commercial, raise your hand.  Me too.

But alas, this ear poison has taught me some valuable lessons about marketing content and strategy, and motivated me to do better.  Here are five of those lessons.

1. If You Follow The Leader, You’ll Never Become One.

For years, automotive advertising on radio and TV was dominated by screaming announcers.  Why was this approach so popular?  Because everyone else was doing it, so it must be the best way to do it.

Fortunately, the screamers have become almost obsolete.  Unfortunately, at least on tri-state area radio, screamers have been replaced by dealership owners or general managers who are now the stars of their commercials.  Why?  They followed the leader.  I remember one prominent auto dealer who started this approach about 12 years ago and now has one of the most successful dealerships in the country.  I used to occasionally help him with his commercials.

Nobody seems to grasp the concept that looking and sounding just like your competition is a bad thing in marketing… and just about anything else.  You can’t always be first, but you can always be unique.  And that’s a major step towards becoming the leader.

2. Your Marketing Should Reinforce And Enhance Your Brand, Not Feed Negative Stereotypes.

This is what I never understood about the screamers.  Fair or not, car salespeople have a reputation for being pushy and dishonest.  Is there anything that sounds more pushy or dishonest than a screaming radio or TV commercial?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been motivated to spend thousands of dollars on a car (or any other product) because someone yelled at me to do so.

Now, the owners and GMs are behind the mic.  Some can pull off an authentic and engaging delivery, but most can’t, especially when they’re using the same tired clichés and lame offers that the screaming announcers used to spew at us.  Many even mock each other, which comes off as petty.

Lack of trust is a major hurdle to overcome for most auto dealers, and both of these approaches do nothing but feed the stereotype of a sleazy salesperson. You may have other stereotypes in your industry so don’t feed into them like a sleazy car salesman.

3. Never Mislead Or Insult The Consumer’s Intelligence.

We know an offer that says something like “Model X as low as $15,000” – when Model X retails for $25,000 – refers to one vehicle that nobody else wants.  We know you’re using this to get us in the door so you can try to sell us a more expensive vehicle.  Do you think we’re that stupid?

Another dealership is promising $6,000 however you want it (check, gift card, yada yada) when you buy a certain model.  Does anyone believe they’re walking out of a dealership with a new car and a check for $6,000 with no strings attached?

I heard a New Jersey luxury auto dealership’s commercial on a New York sports station.  It said that driving this particular luxury brand is like hitting a grand slam in the ninth inning.  Really?  Not that I can afford a luxury vehicle, but if I really want to experience that feeling, I’ll go to fantasy camp.  I’m a big fan of using metaphors to drive a point home, but forcing a silly sports metaphor because you’re on a sports station will get more eye rolls than car shoppers.  Sports fans, drivers of luxury vehicles and even your customers know better.

4. Using Multiple Calls-To-Action Isn’t Just Bad Strategy.  It Sounds Dumb.

I’ve discussed in a previous blog, The Anatomy Of A Call-To-Action, how multiple calls-to-action delay response because someone has to make a choice before they act.  But in the case of automotive advertising, this is just common sense.  I don’t have the stats, but I’m guessing not too many vehicles are sold over the phone or online.  If the goal is to get people to the dealership, why waste valuable time in your commercial with your phone number or website?  If I want to research your dealership online, I can find it, and the only times in my life that I’ve every called an auto dealership were after I bought a car. Find out what your customer needs and deliver a message that is direct and specific.

5. Disclaimers And Fine Print Should Just Say, “Everything Else You See Or Hear Is Crap.”

If your offer requires a 10-second disclaimer voiced by a speed reader or 15 lines of fine print to make it legit – yes, I saw a national automotive TV commercial a few days ago with 15 lines of fine print – perhaps a more transparent, straightforward offer is in order.  For a brief time, some dealerships put the disclaimer at the beginning of the commercial so it would sound like it was part of the preceding commercial, which is deliberately shady and even more insulting to my intelligence.

Price is definitely a factor when shopping for a car, but numbers are easily manipulated, and one Hyundai dealership can’t sell a new Hyundai for any less than another Hyundai dealership or offer any more incentives.  The best way for an auto dealer or any company to earn someone’s business is to earn their trust first.  Be honest and straightforward, both in your marketing and in person, and people will be much more likely to plunk down $20,000-plus for a new car. The same goes for your customers.

Note: I intentionally left out the names of the dealerships whose advertising I was referring to because they could very well be perfectly reputable establishments, and I don’t believe in publicly tearing down local businesses.  It’s just unfortunate that their advertising sucks and probably doesn’t do them justice.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Hi Scott,

    Well, I really enjoyed this post. I hate car dealerships since the day I came in one with no intention to buy a car and left with a brand new vehicle.  Those guys are real SOB’s if you ask me. I was young and they played on my idiotic young innocence. Looks like their commercial are just like them 🙂

    Now that this is out of the way, your have taken very good examples using this industry to show what not to do with with our business and how we should NOT think that our customers or potential customers are just imbeciles. 

    Great guest post’s at Carol. Thanks 🙂

    • Sylvaine,

      Well, I guess auto dealership staffs have good and bad, but the fact that you perceive them to be real SOBs is reinforce by bad advertising.  Don’t feel bad.  We all can point to times when we felt “taken,” even when we did our research and felt prepared.

      You make a great point about treating your current and potential customers with respect.  Talk to us like adults and be honest if you want to win our business!

      Thanks for the kind words!

    • Sylviane, I admit I’ve been bamboozled by them myself. It was really a bad experience but after that I learned and unfortunately now I don’t trust a single one of them. Somehow no matter how many cars I have had to buy, I always feel like I’ve been weaseled in the end. As for their advertising, I don’t even hear it any more. It’s terrible nonsense and my poor brain just blocks it out.

  • Adrienne says:

    Hi Scott,

    When I read this headline I was already nodding my head.  

    My Dad was a salesman and I remember walking onto a car lot to purchase my first car.  Immediately we had two guys running toward us.  Annoying is right and I’ll never forget that experience as long as I live.  My Dad took care of them and as we were walking around he was telling me everything they had done wrong.  From that moment on I’ve never enjoy the experience of shopping for a car.  I’ve just learned to live with those types of salesmen.  I really don’t know how the heck they make money when they are so darn annoying.

    I also love the examples you’ve used to compare their annoying habits to what we should not be doing here.  Now I have run across plenty of people who do act like car salesmen but I have a good feeling that they won’t be around for long.

    Great post Scott and thanks for sharing these tips with us.


    • Adrienne, I haven’t met anyone yet who loves dealing with car salesmen! Even people who sell cars don’t like it. I don’t know why they advertise and act that way, I guess it works somewhere on somebody? But mostly it annoys people but I guess we need cars so we deal with it. 

      Hopefully that kind of behavior is pretty limited. Thanks for sharing your story, I know exactly what you mean!

    • Hi Adrienne,

      Thanks for sharing your experience.  It definitely feeds that vulture stereotype.  Those types of salespeople will always be with us.  I learn something to watch out for every time I buy a car.

      As odd as this may sound, my blog isn’t meant to disparage auto dealers or their employees.  It’s their advertising that does nothing to overcome decades of mistrust caused by stories like yours.  There are a lot of good and decent dealerships and sales reps who get lumped together with the shady characters because of their own advertising and it’s unfortunate.

      Someday, I hope the industry will wake up!


  • Bozo says:

    You’re a used car salesman as bad as those you’re ripping. First, I click on a link in a specific linkedin group having nothing to do with that group’s topic. Second, the link says get $5000 over Blue Book value for your trade but links to this. You’re a clown.