Is Hummer courting hippies?

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 14 2006 11:43 AM

SUVs for Hippies?

Hummer courts the tofu set.

Hummer: Tofu

The Spot: A man waits in the checkout line at the supermarket. He's buying organic tofu and leafy vegetables. Meanwhile, the guy in line behind him is stacking up huge racks of meat and barbecue fixings. Tofu guy, looking a bit insecure, suddenly notices an ad for the Hummer H3 SUV. Eureka! In a series of quick cuts, he exits the supermarket, goes to the Hummer dealership, buys a new H3, and drives off—now happily munching on a large carrot. "Restore the balance," reads the tag line. (To see the ad, click here, then click "Enter Hummer.com," then click "Hummer World," then "TV Commercials," then "Tofu.")

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Each new generation of Hummer has been smaller and cheaper than the last. Remember the original Hummer made available to consumers? Launched in 1992, during the height of Gulf War patriotism, the $140,000, five-ton Hummer H1 was discontinued this June because of poor sales. The absurd H1 begat, in 2002, the slightly less massive H2 (which is still available). Last spring, Hummer scaled things down yet again, introducing the new H3—a $30,000, relatively sanely sized SUV.

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While the vehicles have grown less imposing over time, the brand's reputation hasn't quite kept pace. According to Hummer spokeswoman Dayna Hart, there was a sense among Hummer's marketing brain trust that the brand felt "expensive, too big, and out of reach" for many consumers. What's more, recent Hummer ads have been a little lofty: They've featured cool visuals of the trucks romping through dramatic landscapes but have lacked everyday scenes of people enjoying their Hummers.

Enter this new H3 ad, which tries to make the brand feel a bit less intimidating. It shows an ordinary dude (and not, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger) going to a Hummer dealership, making a purchase, and driving out in a new truck. Which may seem basic, but showing the transaction (and portraying it as lightning-quick and painless—the guy points at a Hummer on the showroom floor, and a moment later he's the proud owner) helps make the H3 seem more like a realistic option and less like a blingtastic pipe dream. And the text that appears at the end of the ad touts the truck's 20-miles-per-gallon performance and its $29,500 price tag, which further drags the brand back toward the sphere of affordability and normalcy.

Hart says the spot aims to make the H3 a more "approachable vehicle that will appeal to introverts, extroverts, vegans, and carnivores." She's right that we wouldn't expect a tofu eater to buy a Hummer. But at the same time, the spot reinforces the central, classic stereotype about Hummer drivers: They buy big cars because they have small … egos.

It's stunning how enthusiastically the ad embraces this idea. The entire plot is based on it: A guy feels wimpy because another guy saw him buying tofu, so he dashes out and buys a Hummer to feel better about himself. The original tag line of the ad was in fact "Restore your manhood." Hart says people called in to complain ("The whole idea of manhood and virility is a touchy subject," she points out, "especially for men"), so, after two weeks on the air, the ad was recut with the line changed to the slightly more ambiguous "Restore the balance."

Toned-down tag line or not, I can't believe this is an effective way to sell Hummers. I imagine current Hummer owners are already tired of fending off accusations that their vehicle is meant to make up for other shortcomings. Do they really want this notion propagated by Hummer itself? Won't this ad sour them on the company and lead them to buy a different truck next time? And what prospective buyer will be swayed by an ad that explicitly suggests this truck's purpose is to compensate for inadequacies? How is that a positive brand image? I thought the whole idea with Hummers is that their superior capabilities (climbing steep inclines, muscling over tough roads) lend you street cred (or off-street cred, I suppose) as the dude with the baddest beast in town. This ad has it backward, eschewing all the performance hype and instead suggesting that the Hummer is best employed as an image enhancer for wussy tofu hippies.

A second, similar spot—with a woman in the lead role—is no better. This time, the scene is a playground, and the woman is standing alongside her son when another boy cuts them in line for the slide. "I'm sorry, Jake was next," she says politely. "Yeah, well, we're next now," replies the other kid's mom with a scowl. Once again, our wounded protagonist races straight to a Hummer dealer and drives off with a truck seconds later. The tag line this time: "Get your girl on." Interestingly, no one seems to have complained about this take on femininity. But one of my readers suggests the message is this: "Even women can have tiny dicks, and the Hummer is the cure."

Grade: C-. According to Hart, it was easy to swap out that "Restore your manhood" tag line. Simply a matter of recutting the ad and then redistributing it to television stations. Apparently, this sort of thing happens all the time—often in response to viewer complaints—and is known as a "re-edit." So, if you see an ad that suddenly looks or sounds different than you remembered it, you might not be imagining things.

Send your recollections of awkward or embarrassing "re-edits" to adreportcard@slate.com. I'll try to confirm these with the advertisers, find out why the edits were made, and get back to you down the line with a special "Re-edits Edition" of Ad Report Card.

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