The hidden persuaders come out of the closet

by
March 17, 2012

A few weeks ago I saw the recent Chrysler Ypsilon commercial and did a double-take.  Visually it’s unremarkable.  But the voiceover is about as subtle as a slap in the belly with a wet fish.  It just shows how far advertising has come in the last 60 years (downhill).

You are what you buy

Way back in 1957 Vance Packard published “The Hidden Persuaders”.  It reveals how insights from psychiatry and the social sciences were routinely used to create persuasive ad campaigns, arguing that the techniques of motivation research were being used “to reach the unconscious mind because preferences are generally determined by factors of which the individual is not conscious.”

He goes on to describe how the growing similarities between products made it very hard for either marketers or consumers to make reasonable distinctions between products in the same category (if it was true then it’s even more so now!). Advertisers therefore set about helping people, in an easy, warm, emotional way, to make unreasonable distinctions, by giving each product a remarkable, highly appealing image.

He noted that studies of narcissism indicate that nothing is more appealing to people than themselves – so they’ll be attracted to products that are presented as projections of their own personality.  The evil image builders of Packard’s nightmare (and popular TV series Mad Men) reasoned that by presenting products as reflections of a person’s own self-image they could shift shit by the ton.

The trick when playing these mind games, and getting people to buy into themselves with their choice of cigarette, automobile or alcoholic beverage, was to use subterfuge.  You pressed their hot buttons in ways you hoped that they wouldn’t notice precisely because “preferences are generally determined by factors of which the individual is not conscious.”

Cut to 2012

In the Chrysler Ypsilon commercial we see a thirty-something yuppie driving through the City of London and drawing admiring glances.  Is she or the car the object of desire?  The answer is both, because the two, so the voiceover tells us, are one.

“Where we’re from, we know that a car isn’t just a car” it intones.   “You see, a car is a statement.   A statement of your character.  A statement of your confidence.”

At this point we get a shot of the driver looking at herself in the rear view mirror and that look is….confident, happy with what she sees.

The voiceover continues as she pulls up, gets out, and trots up the steps into a building.  “A
statement of your tastes.  And where we come from we know a statement doesn’t need to be big.”  At this point we see she is a doctor, examining a patient.  Close up on her
face…is that a stud through her eyebrow? She deliberately turns her head to the side, and holds it there, before looking back into the camera – so we are in no doubt that, yes SHE IS A DOCTOR BUT SHE HAS A STUD THROUGH HER EYEBROW…OMG!  The point being, presumably, to appeal to yuppies who worry that the need to “look professional”, is robbing them of their individuality and frustrating their urge to express their inner character, confidence and taste.

Cut to her little white car between two big black cars (nb, not where she originally parked it, but hey, I’m just being picky.  And I know they had to move it, otherwise the visual point/punchline of little white car between two big black cars would have come too early).

What’s so remarkable, to my mind, is this.  Instead of inferring the “your car says everything about you” message, and letting it work on your subconscious the way the hidden persuaders would have done, they stick the point right in your face and signpost every selling message with great big arrows that shout “GEDDIT?!”

Why are they doing this?

My guess is that Chrysler, whilst asserting that “where we’re from we know a statement doesn’t have to be big” is paranoid that people won’t get a small statement.  Instead of relying on the subconscious to pick up subtle inferences they decide to go straight for the conscious mind and park their selling message smack in the middle of the mental traffic.  So the execution is totally at odds with the message.

David Ogilvy, back in the 60’s, remarked that “The consumer is not a moron.  She is your
wife”.  Yet this commercial treats the viewer as mentally sub normal – even though it is apparently targeted at city professionals, like doctors.  Why?  I can think of two possible reasons.

One, because they believe most of today’s consumers, in the age of information overload and multitasking, will only give the commercial about 5% of their attention – so every point has to be delivered like a brick through a window, with an accompanying voiceover that gives a running commentary for those whose subconscious may be elsewhere during that 30 second slot.

Two, today’s consumers are sufficiently streetwise to recognise a hidden selling message.  So why try to disguise it – let’s just give it to them straight.

Two further quibbles

Half way through we see her “confidently” acknowledging her self-image in the mirror.  She has no stud in her eyebrow.  That’s because (a bit like moving her car for the end frame) showing the stud earlier would blow the visual punch line.  But, putting aside this plot imperative, this leaves you wondering “why does she wait till she gets into work before she puts her stud in?”  The fact she doesn’t wear it outside work suggests it is not a statement of her true character, confidence and tastes (otherwise she’d wear it all the time).  This leaves me thinking she’s just a sham, with severe personality issues.

Secondly, what’s all this “where we’re from” stuff?  Chrysler (along with General Motors and Ford) are from Motor City, otherwise known as Detroit.  It’s a big, brash over the top and in your face place – not one I immediately associate with understatements.  The architecture, the industries, the attitudes, the people, the music, the cars…everything about Detroit is kinda supersized, heavy and loud.

So spare me all this “where we’re from less is more” bullshit!

 

2 Comments
  1. Alexa Steele March 29, 2012 Reply

    Good article.

    My guess the only reference Chrysler was trying to make with the "And where we come from we know a statement doesn’t need to be big" statement was to the size of the car.

    We Americans love cars that are big or flashy or otherwise "statements." And, no, the statements are not small. The cars maybe, but the statements definitely are not.

    What caught my interest, though, is that you describe Detroit as "supersized, heavy and loud." And I guess it is. But it's also a dead city. The architecture is decaying, there is no industry in the city proper anymore, the people are downtrodden, the music has moved on to greener pastures, and the cars--well, the Chrysler headquarters pictured here is actually located in a suburb called Auburn Hills, proximately a 45 minute drive from downtown Detroit.

    I guess what I'm saying is that when Chrysler refers to "where we come from" they are most definitely not referring to modern day Detroit.

  2. Jim O'Connor April 11, 2012 Reply

    Hi Alexa,
    interesting...I've never been to Detroit(except in my head) so your perspective is very enlightening. I guess they are referring to a mythical Detroit that's long gone (and which perhaps only truly existed in the imagination?).

    All the best, Jim

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