A recent survey in my house found that football is more interesting, by miles, than even the most exotic Lewis Hamilton overtaking move, while a rather more wide-ranging questionnaire revealed that, today, most teenagers aspire to own the latest smartphone more than they do a car.
Who can blame them? In football, when a player makes a slight mistake, he is given a yellow card, and the game soldiers on. When an F1 driver makes a slight mistake, he’s forced into the pits, and the game is all but finished. You may as well turn over and watch inter-county basket-weaving.
It’s the same story with advertising. Not that long ago, car adverts looked pretty much like TopGear does today. Carmakers sold the dream. Empty roads. Pretty girls. Men with stubble. Not any more. Now, it’s all 0 per cent finance and safety and stuff, which is of no interest at all to people with spots.
In the news, cars are now seen as a nuisance. They clog up the streets, run people over and kill polar bears. So, even if someone does harbour the faint notion that one day it’d be nice to have a Ferrari, the noise coming out of the radio and the view out of the window serves as a constant reminder that, actually, you’d just be sitting in a jam with everyone else, getting unpleasant looks for being successful and selfish.
That’s the other problem. Humankind used to celebrate the wise and the rich. Now, we look up to the stupid and the fat. We tune into The X Factor to watch people exhibiting their uselessness, and we like The Only Way is Essex because everyone’s daft. Clever people are mocked. Rich people are hated. And cars, as the most outward signs of someone’s wealth, are bound to suffer as a result.
Until very recently, you would have expected the Prime Minister to be seen in the back of a Daimler or a Bentley. Now, you expect to see him on a bicycle or the Tube.
The conclusion is inescapable: soon, people are going to stop buying cars in anything like the numbers we’ve seen in recent decades. We’ll stop asking what people drive and ask instead if they do.
And, plainly, I’m not alone in this way of thinking, because, not that long ago, Peugeot came up with a scheme called Mu, which is like a car club. Though quite why they named it after the measurement for the coefficient of friction I don’t know…
The idea is that you don’t own a Peugeot as such, but you do have access to every single thing it makes. So, you can use a bicycle or a scooter for commuting, then a people carrier should you wish to take the family away for a weekend, then a convertible when the sun shines.
They even say they can offer roof boxes and satnav systems and have a team of people on standby to book you a table at a restaurant. Though I bet if you wanted a convertible on a sunny day, and a table for four at Scott’s in Mayfair, you may find they struggle a bit.
This, though, is the least of the scheme’s problems. The biggest is this: isn’t Peugeot just doing what Hertz and Europcar have done for years? It’s just a car-hire business, the only difference being that you end up with a Peugeot. And most of its products, if we’re honest, are 14-foot billboards for the joys of public transport.
Honda might be able to pull it off because one week you could rent a quad bike, then a generator, then a hot air balloon and then a speedboat. But, surely, isn’t it better to make stuff that people want to buy…?
This brings me back to the world of advertising. It’s all gone wrong. There was a time when British agencies such as Goodyear Stickleback and Bunsen Burner ruled the world with their cleverness and their ability to get the message across, simply by showing a girl hanging her fur coat on a parking meter. They could take even the most dreary product and, using subtle wit, convince us that it would make us attractive. Carling Black Label springs to mind at this point.
Back then, you’d go round the world and laugh at other country’s stupid, primary-coloured attempts to make people buy stuff, and you’d long to come home where the ads were by far and away the best thing on ITV.
Not any more. At this year’s advertising Oscar ceremony, our agencies came home almost completely empty-handed. We received fewer nominations overall than the Romanians and were beaten in the press advertising category by the Americans, the Spanish and even the Brazilians.
Now, obviously, a lot of the problem lies with the bloody silly rules governing what can and cannot be said by the men in polo necks. When James May and I made our television advert for the Scirocco diesel, both of us were left staggered by the sheer volume of red tape through which a creative mind has to wade. In short, you cannot portray a car as fast, glamorous, exciting, sexy, fun or any of the things it’s designed to be. So, obviously, our ad men were going into bat at the Oscars with their hands and their feet tied to the nearest radiator, while Borat & Co. had rocked up with a series of ads which said fast cars were more likely to result in a leg-over.
But there’s another problem, too. Clients,the people who pay for the ads, are less and less willing to take risks. They don’t want to spend half a million quid on a campaign which might offend two people in Nottinghamshire. So they opt for the bland, the safe, the 0 per cent finance Bank-Holiday-savings-offer-must-end crap which is even worse than the programming it funds.
And then there’s the problem of globalisation. In the past, the ads you saw on television here were made here. Now, you have Mazdas with reversible number plates whizzing about idiotically to a multilingual zoom-zoom soundtrack which might work in the Europop belt but is just ridiculous here. The last truly great car campaign was Honda’s ‘wouldn’t it be great if everything just worked’ series. But they seem to have given up with that now.
Well, it’s got to stop. Car bosses need to remind their marketing managers that unless they pull their fingers out, and allow the creative minds to roam free, they will end up running a scheme like Peugeot’s. Renting bicycles out to fools. Mind you, I have thought of a campaign for that. “Anything for the weekend, sir?”