Exhaust emissions and climate change have condemned the automotive industry to radical renewal. The end of the combustion engine has been decided, electric mobility has not yet been established on the market. How is this reflected in automobile advertising? Does it fall into old patterns or does it conquer the future with wit?

By Thomas Wagner.

What times were those when Charles Wilp could draw the rear view of a VW Beetle on a chicken egg for an advertising campaign in the 1960s and write underneath: “There are shapes you can’t improve.” Or he had a Beetle drive towards the horizon frame by frame until it had almost disappeared and added: “It runs… and runs… and runs… and runs…” (Er läuft… und läuft… und läuft… und läuft…) Tempi passati. The years rolled by in the growingly automotive country. And when the oil crisis was overcome and the joy of driving, horsepower in abundance, rapid acceleration and top speed became the order of the day, car advertising also drew on its full resources. They praised technical progress, recognised competitive advantages in greater safety, but were also happy to let it roar unfiltered from all available cylinders. The magical brand formulas of joy, freedom and progress are well known.

Especially after the turn of the millennium, funny films were increasingly mixed in with the usual spots announcing power, safety, novelties or one or the other practical detail. The industry discovered tongue-in-cheek humour, met mobilisation in general and automobility in particular with wit and irony. In short: they didn’t take themselves too seriously and reflected on their own actions, as sales figures were rising. In 2011, Volkswagen used “The Force” for the advertising battle around the Super Bowl and had a little Darth Vader appear. Two years later, Mercedes, supported by Hollywood star Willem Dafoe and the Stones, proved with “Sympathy for the Devil” that even the devilish tempter loses out to the market and a good price.

And today? Today, as the automobile itself is questioned, the “combustion engine” is publicly buried, the electric drive is favoured and at the same time hydrogen technology is speculated on, advertisers are faced with enormous challenges. Even if it can only be a snapshot: What can be observed?

A streak of blue sky

German print ad for the BMW i4.
BMW i4. © BMW Group

Even with the latest, purely electrically powered models such as the brand-new BMW i4, considered a Tesla Model3 exorcist, the advertising (here in print ads) uses the usual ingredients. As little as the design of the vehicle itself differs from its petrol-powered brothers and sisters (apart from a few elements that flag up the new), the advertising remains clearly trapped in rehearsed poses. Afterwards, those who are mobile in a progressive way are those who understand the current mixture of modernity and fashion. If one wanted to interpret the scene in a cheerful and ironic mood, one might ask: Has the young man with the melancholy look, who is acting emphatically casual (hands in his trouser pockets), run away in a huff? Is the young woman waiting for him to get back in the car? What does the pair constellation of the two, who seem so similar, want to express? What – sorry for the eighties term – are these yuppies, these “young upwardly-mobile professionals” supposed to radiate in terms of optimism for the future? Is this what the “#Bornelectric” generation looks like under the blue streak of sky, both in terms of cars and people?

You can see everywhere how hard the creators are searching for catchy formulas to save the old world of “driving pleasure” not only for the digital age, but also for the post-fossil age. So, let’s stay for a moment with BMW, which, like Mercedes, has just launched a model offensive in electric mobility. CEO Oliver Zipse has just said about his company: “The greenest electric car should be a BMW – and the boldest company should be the BMW Group.” The advertising for models without an “I”, however, aims at other values in its aesthetics.

Enjoy every edge

Under the title “The 4” you can read: “Edges, some fear them, some love them…”. The beats pound it in, the images flicker in passionate red and cool blue. Adrenalin is pumped through the images in fast cuts, as the new BMW 4 Series Coupé is supposed to “bring a whole new level of dynamic potency and stylish individuality to the world”. Also, those who had thought that automotive design had long since become more than styling must accept: The “styling of the new BMW 4 Series Coupé is an expressive showcase for individual character that radiates pure driving pleasure from every angle”.

Is it this “unmistakable character profile” that points to the future? Audi even reaches out into the interplanetary to create momentum in its advertising for the new A3 Sportback. Aesthetics and the message “The new Audi A3 Sportback. Progress made tangible”, however, hardly differ from earlier spots.

The right time to be an Audi

“We fly to Mars. Robots clean our flat. Rockets can land. Dogs have followers. Recycling becomes fashion. Your high beams react to other cars. And your car follows your mood. The right time to be an Audi.” Is the staccato of such declarative sentences enough to continue invoking progress? Or do advertising and marketing need completely different images and messages to appeal to customers in the future? The following BMW commercial shows that the transformation is also understood as a competition between (model) generations. In its narrative, it revives the popular motif that, if the night is only dark enough, things and machines come to life.

Conflicts of the generations

In the dialogues of the comparatively long commercial “A story of generations”, which BMW launched for CES 2021, the enormous changes that manufacturers are facing become clear: Electricity instead of petrol, intelligence and emotion instead of power and speed: “BMW iDrive. The intelligent fusion of sensing.” “Intelligence?” “Marketing bullshit”? Which model the future belongs to is clear.

The main thing: Horsepower

This Volkswagen commercial from 2017 shows how intelligent systems can be linked to the theme of “horsepower” in a funny way and suddenly reveal completely different horsepower.

There is another way. With the formula “Take it to the next level”, the following film does not offer an alternative to the same historical model of progress. The “History of Horsepower” presents a comic-like series of images ranging from hard-to-tame wild horses and Roman chariots to compact muscle cars, but the film produced for BMW’s new channel on the rapidly growing Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili at least strikes a different aesthetic note.

Citroën becomes Zitrön

Last but not least, Citroën can be used to learn how to skilfully bring the brand to the fore on the occasion of an anniversary and to refer to its own name and the otherness of the brand with esprit and humour.

The way the short ‘documentary’ about the Citroën dealer Michael deals with changes that are experienced as disruptive, how self-ironically cultural differences, identification and transformation processes are played with, is simply fun. Progress, in all its ambivalence, can also come across as smiling. It doesn’t always have to be technology.


ABC Awards 2021 – The world of mobility

The ABC Awards are a globally unique design and industry competition which incorporates the entire world of mobility. Independent experts present awards for outstanding products, projects and brands in all domains of mobility, from best practices in communication to commercial and individualised transport as well as groundbreaking innovation. Don’t miss the early bird deadline on April 14th!


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