NICK BUNKLEY

Buick, attacking dinosaur image, now dodges them in ads

Automotive News | March 14, 2013 - 3:58 pm EST

About 10 years ago, my wife and I encountered an elderly woman in a snowy mall parking lot looking lost.

We asked if she needed help, and she said she couldn't find her car. The only description she could provide at first was that it was red.

My wife began listing car brands she could think of to help narrow down our search. Sensing that this could go on for a while, I quickly jumped in: "Is it a Buick?"

"Yes, that's it!" the woman exclaimed. I located the car, indeed a red Buick, a few aisles away, and she drove off, grateful for the help.

Buick has come a long way in the last decade, but ask anyone who doesn't work for General Motors or one of its dealerships to describe Buick customers, and you'll probably hear two words: "old people."

Like most things involving Detroit (you may know it as "America's most miserable city") and its automakers, Buick's image is largely outdated. The average age of its buyers has fallen from 64 years old in 2007 to 57 today. Considering that the average person who was 64 years old in 2007 is 69 today, that's an impressive decline.

In fact, Buick was the only brand to have its average buyer's age decline from 2007 to 2011, according to Polk. Still, Buick had the second-oldest buyers in the industry, behind only Lincoln (whose customers have aged even more waiting for their new MKZ to show up).

So Buick's customers are still relative dinosaurs, which brings us to GM's new commercial for the Buick Encore featuring, of all things, dinosaurs.

GM says the spot, which will be seen first on ESPN this weekend, is all about highlighting the small crossover's agility and maneuverability compared to all the lumbering luxury SUVs whose fossilized airbags and heated leather seats will one day be dug up and reassembled in museums.

But really, deep down, all Buick commercials are about trying to show that Buicks aren't just old people's cars anymore. It's no coincidence that the couple shown driving the Encore under a brontosaurus' foot probably have a combined age of less than the average Buick buyer.

The athletes who have appeared in recent Buick commercials -- Shaquille O'Neal and Peyton Manning -- bear little resemblance to the typical Buick customer. They probably wouldn't have been caught dead in a Buick until GM paid them to try to make everyone forget about Tiger Woods.

The Buick Encore.

Anyone who watches the basketball games that are shown briefly between 37-minute commercial breaks these next few weeks will see plenty from Buick, which advertises heavily during the NCAA tournament and is in its third year as the NCAA's official partner of human achievement.

Who watches the NCAA tournament? Young people! What does "official partner of human achievement" mean? I have no idea!

In the auto industry, no demographic is more sought after, more fought over and more mythicized than young people. Automakers scour every corner of Facebook and Twitter looking for young people. They pay jeans-wearing consultants (young people!) from companies with nonsensical names to tell them what other young people like.

Chevrolet undoubtedly hopes to target young people through a partnership announced at this week's South by Southwest festival with the social-networking site Myspace. Except that all the young people I know stopped using Myspace in 2005. I honestly didn't realize it still exists until I read GM's news release.

No auto brand needs young people more than Buick. Unfortunately, the problem with young people -- well, one of the many problems with young people, am I right? -- is that they tend to care about what people think of them. Perceptions take a long time to evolve, and it may be a generation from now before the average twenty- or thirty-something consumer puts Buick near the top of their shopping list.

Time is one thing that no consultant, ad agency or computer-generated dinosaur can change. But barring some major product-development disasters or an ill-timed meteorite, Buick could be on its way to putting its prehistoric reputation behind it.

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Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive NewsNick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News

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