Fast Talk with Jeff Smith: Car Guys in the Media

Maybe I missed my calling. Perhaps I should farm myself out as a technical consultant for ad agencies who do video ads for automotive parts and tools. It seems in the last 20 years I’ve seen only a handful of commercials where the creative people with all the money got it right. This subject was most recently spurred by an online ad for Craftsman tool storage. It seems like Sears has recently fallen on hard times and Craftsman was recently sold. But if this is an indication of where they’re going – I wholeheartedly applaud.

My job takes me all over the automotive side of the internet doing research (and the occasional WWII video) when this ad popped up. I don’t normally watch these but this one caught my eye. It starts as the camera pans across an especially messy kitchen. Water drips from a leaky faucet, dirty dished overflow from the sink and in general it’s a mess. Then we jump to the guy’s fastidious garage where every polished Craftsman end wrench has its assigned spot, everything is orderly, and his workbench is spotless. As our hero exits, the tagline says – “It’s time to prioritize”. Yes!


This hit me how this short snippet of an ad really is right on target. It was subtle yet is speaks volumes. Just last week, my painter finished completely re-painting all the trim around my shop that had begun to peel and crack after 15 years of exposure to California’s relentless sun. The house needs work too, but the shop comes first. The painter actually was a little surprised I didn’t want the house painted too, but that’s because we’re about to put in new windows and the trim will have to wait. It’s a matter of priorities.

I mentioned a few other ads that I thought were accurately targeted. An example was an outstanding Autolite print ad. These were a series of ads using versions or replicas (I’m not sure) of original Big Daddy Ed Roth customs from the ’60s. The one in the photo I’ve included is actually called the Roswell Rod built by Ed Roth disciple Fritz Schenck. I’m not a custom car fan. I’m more of an engine guy but something visceral in these ads spoke to me. After appreciating the ads, I emailed my friend Jay Buckley who consults with Fram and Autolite and told him to offer high praise to the agency who created the ad. Somebody inside that agency really knows cars and had the guts to make this happen.

Jay sent me a couple of posters from the series so I’ve included a quickie photo of one of them. The shop where the car is parked has a dirt floor with wooden planks for the car to sit on, an old-time background with tools hanging on the wall and even a wood-fired stove for winter. The grass outside tells you this is a true backyard garage. I found myself thinking about an old wood shop in my hometown of Boone, Iowa that I used as a garage for a couple of years right after high school. This was where I built my ’55 Chevy. It had light and tunes, but didn’t have a heater and it got “I can’t grip the wrench anymore” cold at night in the winter. Except for the fact that my shop had a cement floor, it could have been this old wooden shop.

The third ad that I’ll never forget was from the 1980s. I think it was a Valvoline motor oil ad. The scene began with a guy working on his car in a period-perfect garage. He’s changing his oil and as he turns to face the well-hewn wooden workbench, the camera pans across the cans of oil but continues until locking onto his oily hand grabbing a perfectly white powder sugar donut. The donut disappears and the returns with a bite out of it along with two black, greasy fingerprints on what’s left of the donut.

“Perfect! – I’ve done that!” was my first thought the first time I saw this ad. My job brings me in contact with high-performance automotive material almost constantly so bombarded like I am I’ve become understandably a bit jaded. But these ads all spoke to me. The question becomes – “Why?”

The answer is simple. If you have a product that the world believes really isn’t any different than everybody else’s – how do you differentiate your product? That’s also simple – you need to better identify with your customer. So if the component is a spark plug – then talk to the guys who you know will be buying your parts. If they are the hands-on guys (and women too), then speak to them and forget the phony celebrity crap. The Autolite ad using Roth’s custom did just that – spoke to me even though I’m not into ‘60s custom cars – that’s just a small part of the message. But that ad said –“Hey, we understand that you’re into cars and we just want you to know that we get it! We’re car guys too!” At least for me – that worked and I paid attention.

I’ll admit that I owe a small bit of brand allegiance to two of these examples. My tool box is 98 percent Craftsman – so that ad spoke to me. But if it had seen an ad for SK or Kobalt, I still would have been touched because I immediately identified with that guy’s priorities. If I polled my friends, I could probably list a few more ads that have connected with them. I doubt that any of those ads included celebrities, dancing dogs, computer graphics, or even scantily-clad supermodels. Okay, except perhaps that last one. That woman in the Jack-in-the-Box Super Bowl commercial was memorable…

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