LINDSAY CHAPPELL

They slip by fast, but not all TV spots are so simple

Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.
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The old rule of thumb in design is the KISS principle: "Keep It Simple Stupid." Or, as some people write it, "Keep it simple, Stupid." Either way.

The advertising business long ago adopted the adage. The newspaper business tries to adhere to it as well.

But we're living in complicated times. And apparently some things require a little more explanation.

That may explain the rash of not-so-simple auto industry commercials this year. Not bad commercials, necessarily. Just complicated commercials.

Chevrolet and Nissan have had their hands full explaining in simple sound bytes and fleeting images why their new-generation electric vehicles, the Volt and the Leaf, are different from the norm, different from each other and worth consideration.

A recent Nissan Leaf spot slips in the technological news -- just in passing -- that the car can be used to provide electricity for the owner's house.

Whoa?

General Motors recently got into some trouble in the United Kingdom for its spot saying the British version of the Volt has a 360-mile range. While English authorities scoffed at the claim, it does deliver that range, but the electric car has to tap its gasoline engine to make it happen. Which nonetheless really is advanced technology, but all that nuance just doesn't quite fit succinctly into one of those three-sentence TV spots.

Diving off the cliff

Then there's the splashy Fiat 500 commercial showing the little cars crashing off cliffs in Italy and careening off narrow Italian roads and falling into the sea. They are making their way to the United States, the viewer learns at the end of the spot. But isn't that kind of a long way to go for a punch line? Besides, isn't the car produced in Mexico?

The car is "Italian designed," the commercial has to explain at the end, as though justifying the preceding 56 seconds of water crashes.

There is also the "Let's Talk Truth" series now running for TrueCar. The commercial is straightforward and simple in telling listeners that people pay various prices for their cars. But then graphs begin to appear in the sky showing the arcing range of prices that each car has, before a spokesman mentions the fact that TrueCar relies on a "network of trusted dealers" to determine consumer prices.

All of which is true. But it's just complicated to convey in simple imagery -- especially the part where the car in your driveway shows a price on the arc that is about 20 percent of the way up from the bottom. Exactly how much extra did you pay?

Sam Elliott

The most curious of all the latest commercials (click here) may be those for the 2013 Ram 1500 pickup. As Ram spokesman and ubercowboy Sam Elliott intones that the truck is "engineered to move heaven and earth," Planet Earth is crumbling beneath the pickup. It's pretty alarming background imagery.

And then, suddenly, there is Sam Elliott himself, white-haired and mustachioed, squinting as though he has stepped out of the cataclysmic dust and can't exactly find the TV camera.

"The road doesn't end here," he says in his ominously wise cowboy way. "This is oooonly the beginning."

What in the world does he mean by that? What else is coming?

Does Ram have something else planned for consumers?

This is not a simple message. These are complicated communications that appear to have a lot to get across in a very short amount of time.

The past couple of decades saw TV advertising trending away from 60-second spots in favor of 30 seconds and sometimes even down to 15-second blips.

Given the state of industry affairs -- the complex new brand arrangements, new technologies and business practices -- maybe we ought to be moving in the other direction. Automakers have such a complex message that they should be buying blocks for 5-minute TV presentations to simplify things.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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