Down this road before: Introducing the new generation of Buick.

March 23, 2015

It can’t be… It is!

“Take a fresh look at Buick,” the voiceover tells us in the carmaker’s new anthem. The commercial features vignettes of people in disbelief that the lovely new car they are gazing upon and/or riding in is in fact a Buick. An old woman insists the regal beauty in her son’s driveway is not a Buick. She grew up with Buicks and knows her Buicks. A valet keeps running past a new Buick in the parking lot searching for what we surmise must be an old-fashioned car. Later we see him behind the wheel. “Nice,” he says. A desperately envious housewife ogles her neighbor’s new SUV, unaware it is a Buick, as her cuckold husband mopes beside her.

In the print ad a hip millennial with blue streaks in her hair smiles behind the wheel mocking the notion of Buick being only for blue-haired ladies.

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We get the idea. Buick has been transformed into a luxury car made for today. In other words, this is not your father’s Buick. Obviously, we’ve been down this road before…

In the late 80’s I was on the team that introduced America to a truly new Oldsmobile. Barely into my first job at Leo Burnett, I wrote and produced the opening commercial in the now infamous “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” campaign, featuring William Shatner and his daughter. For that, I wrote the line, “New Generation of Olds” but America really only remembers the step-up line, which became part of the pop culture lexicon. Even so, within a few years Oldsmobile would go out of business, retiring the brand forever. For more on all that, including some great insider controversy, start here.

The point is Buick is trying to do the exact same thing. My guess is that it won’t end well for them either. I say this not because the strategy is necessarily wrong but as Oldsmobile learned the hard way it might very well be a dooming one. No matter how clever the executions –and these are decent- Buick is still telling folks that it is not an old-fashioned car (anymore), which, alas, has the unfortunate side effect of reminding people that Buick is totally known for being old-fashioned. It is a paradox. A bit like saying your cool ultimately means you’re not cool. We see these commercials and we cannot help but think Buick doth protest too much.

I mean no ill will for Buick or their ad agency. But I have spent decades wondering what went wrong with Oldsmobile, especially given how much America loved our silly campaign. There are but two reasons: The new generation of Olds was not as good as our father’s. And that the marketing released a deadly worm into the world dooming Oldsmobile to the scrap heap of history.

Anything can happen. After all, these new Buicks may well be damn fine cars. But perception is reality and this campaign inevitably ignites a very dangerous perception.

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