2013 Smart ForTwo “Tough” Commercial: What You See Is What You Get, Sort Of [The Ad Section]
Award-winning ad man-cum-auto journalist Don Klein knows a good (or bad) car commercial when he sees one; the Ad Section is his space to tell you what he thinks of the latest spots. The ad’s rating is depicted via the shift pattern at the bottom, but everyone has an opinion when it comes to advertising, so hit Backfires below and tell us what you think, too.
Welcome to the strange and wonderful world of TV commercial demos, wherein advertisers use impressive “visual proof” to dramatically showcase their products’ superiority. But be forewarned—what you see isn’t always exactly what you get. Because even though product demos are subject to FTC approval, what happens under contrived conditions doesn’t always replicate the real world, which might explain why demos are so often used in infomercials.
Against that background, let’s look at Smart’s new ForTwo commercial. We open on what appears to be a parked ForTwo with a giant Ford Excursion on its roof. But when the little car drives away, we see that in fact the multi-ton SUV is perched atop a Smart Tridion safety cell, which, we are told, “can withstand over three and a half tons.” Even with the sound turned off we would get the message: Smart is small in size, big on safety.
So what’s misleading about that? Strictly speaking, nothing. They really did lower an Excursion onto a Tridion cell. True, it was a specially rigged Tridion cell, but it points that out in type across the bottom. You noticed that, right? Of course, the demo doesn’t prove that Smarts are safe, but it certainly does leave that impression, just as a four-pound brick spanning a 12-ounce drinking tumbler might leave the impression that the glass is strong. But drop the brick on the tumbler—or the Excursion on the Smart—and the result likely will be different, especially if you don’t use a weight distribution platform like the one in the commercial and factor in things that happen in real accidents, like speed and motion. Although I’m not a physicist, I’ve got to believe that three-plus tons of mass randomly plunked down on suspension and tires designed to support an 1800-pound car is going to cause some serious damage, even if the cute little critter is parked at the time of impact. And if I’m wrong, at least it would be a demo to remember, right?
But like most TV commercial demos, this one is more about general perception than strict reality. Will anyone seeing this commercial think you can really tote a giant SUV around town on a Smart’s roof? Of course not. All Smart wants us to get from this spot is that its cars are safe. So are they? In the IIHS’s 2013 ratings, Smart earned top marks in every test it was subjected to, and the body’s construction probably had a lot to do with that, although in fairness, the 2013 versions of the Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Mazda 2, Nissan Versa sedan, and Toyota Yaris hatchback all earned the same top rollover rating (the test that measures roof strength) without having “the world’s only Tridion safety cell.” But that still doesn’t make the ForTwo spot misleading: It never said Smart is making the only safe microcar.
Given the rules of engagement that apply to demos, I think this commercial does a good job. The FTC doesn’t require safety demos to literally replicate real-world accidents, and unlike the infamous Volvo “Bigfoot” commercial of 1990 where the roof of a 240 wagon was bolstered to avoid being crushed, this commercial didn’t cheat to make the honest point that Smarts have strong bodies. It’s merely a dramatic presentation of a true product attribute. It’s up to you to decide its relevance.
- Instrumented Test: 2011 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive
- Comparison Test: Honda Fit vs. Sonic, Accent, Rio5, Versa, and Yaris
- Instrumented Test: 2012 Scion iQ
Another thing this commercial demonstrates is that it’s possible to effectively make a point in just 15 seconds (most commercials run for 30), and that will give Smart a lot more mileage from its ad budget. That said, I have to wonder about the tagline, which includes the term “uncar.” Smart’s not the first advertiser to use that concept to imply that its products are different. For years, 7-Up billed itself as the “Uncola” in an attempt to position the brand as an attractive alternative to Coke and Pepsi, and while that had some logic to it, I can’t imagine what “uncar” is supposed to mean. Are we to think of it as a four-wheeled motorcycle? A road-worthy golf cart or ATV? Even Smart’s website refers to its vehicles as “cars.” So why go to all the trouble to convince people that Smarts are strong, safe cars only to confuse them with a mysterious misnomer at the end? I’m not sure what that particular line of thinking is supposed to demonstrate.
By Don Klein