Orchids and onions: BMW’s Benz stunt stuns

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But Carsmetic Surgeon’s unfunny sexism needs to be knifed.

One of the saddest, and most frustrating, aspects of South African marketing and advertising is the ban on comparative advertising.

In many countries, it is accepted as an integral part of the capitalist free market system. But here, it seems our ‘‘boys club’’ – and most agencies are still run by men – doesn‘t want it. I can understand why.

If you engage in comparative advertising, where you directly pitch your client’s product against its competitors, you have to have tremendous confidence in that product. And you also have to have a thick skin when the competitor has a go at you.

Our industry doesn’t seem to have the guts for that sort of real world comparison. Which is a great pity, not only because it deprives consumers of a direct apples versus apples assessment (which saves them doing the leg work themselves), but because it stifles creativity. This is particularly the case when humour is used to get a point across.

The classic case in South African advertising was the BMW ‘‘Beats the Benz’’ ad in the late ’80s, when a BMW 5 Series was seen negotiating the same Chapman’s Peak corners where a Merc went off (albeit saving the owner’s life because, well, it was a Merc …) BMW only flighted the ad briefly over a weekend, correctly predicting that Merc SA would have a legal frothy with the then Advertising Standards Authority.

Yet the parent companies of both brands in Germany have a long history of poking gentle fun at each other in their ads. The latest has become a social media talking point.

It purports to show the retirement day of Mercedes-Benz CEO Dieter Zetsche (affectionately known in the company as Dr Z). After handing over his badge for the last time, he (the actor playing him at least) is whisked away from the company’s Stuttgart headquarters in an S Class limo.

At home, he opens the garage doors as the line ‘‘Free at last’’ appears. Alongside a vintage Merc, though, is a brand new BMW i8 hybrid supercar, and he whizzes off.

It’s a great, gentle, taking the mickey out of Merc … and the people at the Three-Pointed Star hit back almost immediately on Twitter, tweeting: ‘‘Thanks @ BMW for the kind suggestion, but we’re 100% sure he already decided to #switchtoEQ.’’

The latter was a clever reference to Merc’s own range of electric vehicles. No lawsuits. No threats. Just two brands pitching their products in a self-confident manner. It shows two things clearly. First, Germans do have a sense of humour. And second, maturity and self-confidence are vital ingredients of successful, long-lived brands.

I hope South Africa is paying attention. So, Orchids to both BMW and Mercedes-Benz, even though this ad is only flighting on YouTube and overseas at the moment (it would be banned here). In the end, it burnished both images.

I’m no prude, but it never ceases to amaze me how, in this day and age, boys’ ‘‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’’ smutty humour actually ends up in marketing communications. One particularly odious piece comes from a lot called Carsmetic Surgeon in Pretoria and which was airing on a local radio station.

They promise they will sort out your car’s dings and dents, from major to minor. Fair enough. But do you have do add the sleazy ‘‘we will polish your bonnet and buff your muff?’’

You’ve probably got topless calendars all over your workshop … But you get an Onion for potentially irritating women (many of whom are drivers, you may have noticed) with your sexist attitude … because that’s what it is. It’s not funny.

Brendan Seery.

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