A very basic idea in advertising is the association of the advertised product or service with things that are, at a minimum, pleasant. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule—like associating your product with extreme pain. This strategy usually involves some attempt at humor and can be tough to pull off. For an example of an ad that tries to pull this off and comes up short, consider a current spot from Hyundai. (To see it, go to Hyundai's site, click on "Showroom," then "Commercials," then the spot titled "Back Seat." You'll need either the Flash Player 6 or QuickTime 5.)
The spot focuses on a young man and young woman of college or possibly high-school age. They're driving at night, in a Hyundai Sonata. You can hear the sounds of another couple in the back seat, making out. The two kids in the front look plainly uncomfortable, exchanging grossed-out glances and rolling their eyes at how hot and heavy it's getting back there. A high-heeled foot briefly pokes its way into the front seat. Finally the car rolls to a stop in front of a restaurant. The kid who is driving says, "Mom, Dad. We're here." Finally we see the couple in the back—Mom and Dad, who look to be in their 50s, and a little startled to find their heavy-petting session interrupted.
In a word: Ewww! Who wants to think about their parents groping in the back seat? Anybody? Anybody?
Presumably the idea here is to appeal not to audience members who are close in age to the young folks in the front seat, but rather to those who identify with the horny oldsters in the back. The Hyundai spot's tag line is: "When life keeps getting better." Dedicated readers of the "Ad Report Card" will recall some precedents for this tactic. Recently, Sony made a concerted break from ad-land's youth obsession with a campaign aimed directly at the 50-plus crowd. And way back in 2001, Chrysler pushed the Concorde with a spot that touted the car's roomy back seat as a great place for randy suburbanites to go all the way—a gambit that was toned down in a re-cut version of the ad.
Of course, I'm all for couples of any age behaving as amorously as they like. The problem is that long before we learn who's going at it in the back, we have already spent most of the commercial looking at, and identifying with, the miserable kids in the front. We want something to happen that will relieve, or make light of, their apparent misery. We do not want something to happen that will make us identify with their misery. And actually I think one notion that bridges all generation gaps is that few of us, at any age, want to dwell even briefly on the thought of the 'rents getting busy.
Sure, the scenario in the ad is a surprise, and thus rather memorable—but then, so are a lot of bad dreams. Actually, it would have made just as much sense for the ad to end with one of the kids on a couch, before a sympathetic-looking man with a beard and a pipe and a voice-over saying somberly, "Therapy: It can help."