Anyone in the car business or the advertising business who knows me has probably heard me say that retail car advertising sucks.

Let’s face it, for the past thirty years or so not much has changed in how dealers advertise cars. What puzzles me however, is that dealers continue to follow the status quo despite a never-ending glut of sob stories about declining sales.

If you had millions of dollars invested in a car dealership and your sales just kept falling short each year wouldn’t you try and make changes to correct the slide? Not that responsible dealers don’t make changes, I know they do. But, the one thing they never seem to change significantly is their marketing. To get change you have to make change and it’s usually uncomfortable.

I’ve always said I’d be rich if I could come up with a totally new, dramatically changed and effective way to advertise cars. I’ve been searching for this answer my entire thirty-year career in the car marketing industry. From ad agency to ad agency where I’ve worked on car accounts, the retail car ads never change. It’s always a “Clearance Sale” or a “Red Tag” sale or “the best time to buy.” That’s not to say my colleagues and I haven’t come up with some brilliant ideas. We have. It’s our clients, the car dealers and industry executives who have been afraid to make a change. In some cases, overly cautious ad agency execs scuttle the great ideas just because they’re “not what the industry is used to.”

Nobody seems to listen to the consumer. Hey, I’m not a research expert but I’ve read my share of interesting research data and the one thing it tells us is that consumers are not saps. Clearance sales, Red Tag Days and March Madness events don’t fool them. Let’s be honest, there is no lowest price or best time to buy a car. You don’t get a discount even when the ad says you get a discount.

What I’ve learned over the years is that there isn’t going to be a Eureka moment for retail car ads – at least not within the realm of current marketing knowledge, although understanding and using social media has potential. But, there can be a glorious awakening to the techniques and tools that, when used knowledgeably, can influence people to go to your dealership.

All it takes is an understanding of the way consumers’ minds perceive advertising messages. That amazingly sophisticated organ we all have, our brain, is the key. Once you board the mystery train to understanding how the brain works the rest is as incredibly simple as selecting the right tool for the job.

But, caution first. There aren’t many car industry people out there who want badly enough to make it happen. No dealer I’ve ever met, save a couple, has ever demonstrated that they are willing to come up with the investment and the time commitment to see a difference. Time is essential to building the branding that will bring customers through your doors for their lifetime.

There is a massive sub-industry made up of companies and people whose very existence depends on the retail car industry and its resistance to change.   Jingle houses sell “out-of-the-box” jingles to car dealers throughout North America. Jingles that curiously come “oout of the box.”

Newspapers employ scores of people who do nothing but assemble clip art car ads that look like bingo cards.

There are freelance advertising consultants, web masters, nephews and brothers of dealers, radio reps, the wife, and even some customers, all telling the retail car industry how to promote and advertise. Dealers listen to all of them except the most important one – the Consumer.

Take it from me – I might be a marketing communications guy, but I am a customer too.  And I am in touch with my customer side.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Murray

    I think you make some good points.
    Let me add.
    As an accountant, I am confused bv many of the price and financing conditions in the messy car dealer ads.
    There is so much legal falderall and babble. I mean, would some of these dealers honestly buy themselves under these conditions?
    All the legal mini print just confirms what we all believe about car dealers – that they are shady customers who want to cheat us of our money and not give us an honest fair deal.
    Nice article.

  • Camilo

    I agree with you. Who do dealers think they are when they stand up like gumbahs and shout that they have the best deals in town. Or parade their kids and grandkids and hired bimbos in front of the camera in shameful requests for our business. What idiots!
    What I want from a car dealer is straight talk (am I on drugs???) and an honest deal (I must be on drugs!!!!).
    You point out some interesting things. Isn’t insanity defined some times as doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to change? Since dealers are expecting us to make one of the biggest purchases of our lives, second only to that of our homes, why don’t they treat us like we are smarter than morons? They keep doing this, as you say, as their sales plummet and their cohorts shutter their dealerships.
    Does their continued use of the same techniques make your point that they simply rode a wave of economic growth and had little to provide but a weaselly end service to the car distribution channel?
    Murray’s point is good too. Don’t they know that the more legal type they throw in their ads the less we trust them and the more we think the deals are all in their favor.
    Look for more people to buy through Costco and other buying arrangements and not count on car dealers who continue to portray themselves, in their own advertising, as shady customers just out to grab a buck. Why should we believe them?

  • Murph

    Car dealers treat their businesses like ego farms. It is all about them. Wake up boys! The party is over. This blog makes sense. But I am going to bet that dealers think they know better.

  • Mo

    Car dealers only know two ways to advertise: Scream! and SCREAM LOUDER! They need serious help but their egos are too big to get it. Who can feel sorry for so many that have had to go out of business,

  • E

    I think you all have valid points. I would argue that not all dealerships have failed with this type of advertising. The reasoning behind the being loud or louder is to get the consumer excited because an excited customer is more likely to buy. The saying goes, If they like you, they trust you, If they trust you, they buy from you. The dealerships that close usually do so because of shady operations, not their advertisements. For those of you who don’t think car buyers are unintelligent, you should job shadow a salesman. 9 out of 10 customers wants to steal your car for ridiculous prices that have no reasoning behind them other than the customer has no idea what the value of cars are. You could argue that it’s the salesman’s job to build value in a car but it’s not their job to educate the customer. In this day in age with all the information at the touch of a keyboard, it really doesn’t make sense. Anyways, I believe the advertising hasn’t changed because it works. Besides all that, with as many reviews online, coupled with the BBB grading available for any business you can advertise however you want, the point is to have your name out there.

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