Advertising… Learning from a minivan campaign.

Another ride down that twisting, mountain road of pathetic clichés.

I don’t know what it is about automotive advertsing. No other category is so rich in promise, yet so pathetically void of inspiring insight and unique execution.

Here’s a good example: Introductory ads for the 2008 Dodge Caravan and the Honda Odyssey. But first, a quick glimpse of how they got here…

The original minivan.

Chrysler single-handedly created the minivan market when the Caravan and Voyager debuted in 1984. Sales skyrocketed and imitators sprang up only after Chrysler had firmly established itself as the segment leader. After years of dominance, Chrysler’s newly redone vans are fighting for their lives against the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey and a host of crossover vehicles.

While they may not have originated the idea, Chrysler’s minis certainly moved the segment from niche vehicle to the pinnacle of the mainstream. And by now, the marketing people at Dodge have a pretty good handle on what their target audience is looking for in a minivan.

The Dodge spots are simple slices of family life: we see a baby sleeping peacefully in a car seat. Kids playing cards in facing rear seats. Kids watching videos. Moms & Dads reconfiguring the seats and loading the kid’s crap.

That’s what minivans are all about: Lugging kid stuff, looking for lost binkies and scraping from between the seats. That’s the reality of it. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not the least bit appealing to anyone who doesn’t have kids. But it’s relevant as hell for parents who are carting three kids around everyday.

The main benefit of all minivans is practicality. Plain and simple. And Caravan advertising conveys the idea very clearly. Honda, on the other hand, has careened off the road with their spots for the Odyssey.

The Honda spot goes like this: There’s an attractive young couple eyeing each other suggestively while driving along a winding, country road. In a mini van, for pete sake!

The husband, who’s doing the driving, glances at his wife as she reaches up and grips the “oh shit” handle above her window. She gives him a quizzical, turned-on look. He gives the van a little more gas and grips the wheel tightly as he lugs into another corner with all the agility of a Winnebego.

She holds on even tighter and looks at him as if to say, “ohhhh yeah, bring it on big boy.” I almost expect them to pull over and jump into the back for a roadside quicky. Instead, she just holds on for the ride while the voice-over chimes in: “Just because it’s a minivan doesn’t mean you have to treat it like one.”

Oh, c’mon.

First of all, curves and minivans DO NOT go together. Put a minivan on a windy road and you here’s what you get: Puking children. Horrendous messes of vomit. Leave the windy roads to the Porsche commercials.

Secondly, no one gets turned on by a minivan. A corvette might help you get laid, but not a dual-sliding, seven passenger, Chrysler product.

There’s no pleasure in getting from Point A to Point B in a mini van. Believe me, I’ve done it. There is some satisfaction in packing up both kids and the entire kitchen sink for a simple, cross-town play date. There’s satisfaction in changing a diaper on the side of the road without hanging your baby out on the tailgate. But not pleasure.

So Honda’s idea of promoting the minivan as something sexier than just a minivan, simply doesn’t wash. They could spend a billion dollars trying to convey that idea, and parents would still buy it for the cupholders. It’s like trying to kitten-up a milk truck.

So how did the message get so messed up, and what can we learn from Honda’s one-spot marketing blunder?

1. As a brand, be authentic. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Minivans are not 450 horsepower Italian chick magnets.

2. Realize that technical specs and insider information is often irrelevant to consumers. The automotive press consistently ranks The Honda Odyssey above its Chrysler competitors in performance and reliability. It’s a great vehicle. Best in class even. And the Honda executives are fully aware of this.

The problem is, in the minivan category nobody gives a hoot about “chassis refinement and driving feel.” By letting insider information dictate their marketing, Honda ends up with a message that’s relevant to their own executives and to the automotive cognoscenti, but completely irrelevant to the target audience. It’s a classic case of getting in your own way. Of knowing too much.

Of course it probably wasn’t the Honda executives who came up with the idea of using sexual tension in their Odyssey spots. Maybe the ad agency creative team just couldn’t find inspiration in a reliable minivan. Maybe there wasn’t any consumer insight or personal experience to go on. Or maybe they were just trying to steer clear of a technical, engineering message. Wise move, but they really blew it with the hot couple concept. And I’d bet there wasn’t an account planner involved in that idea.

Somewhere, the process took a wrong turn and the end result is a waste of marketing dollars. In the scheme of things, one spot isn’t going to kill Honda. But in the meantime, Dodge is sticking to an approach that simply demonstrates relevant features. It’s not going to win any awards, but at least it’s real. It hits the hot buttons of a specific target audience and it wins the head-to-head battle with Honda.

About the Author

I’m a brand strategist, creative director, copywriter and published author living in the very livable town of Bend, Oregon. I’m also an ad agency veteran and owner of BNBranding. Read more about me »

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Courtney Bryant Reply

Someone else who understands the virtues of realistic portrayals. I once had this client who wanted me to try and brand and market him, but he refused to acknowledge his “reality”.

By ignoring his reality, and trying to push a reality he had no chance of embodying, he castrated every potential positive marketing advantage point I was able to put together.


Chantal Matthey Reply

Hey, first I want to say great blog. I don’t always agree with your blogposts but it’s always a nice read.
Keep up the nice work.

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