Baby, You Can Fuel My Car
BP's catchy new gas-station ads.
The Spot:An infant drives a car, with three other infants as his passengers. (Relax, this is animation, not live action.) The babies—singing a bouncy tune—notice the car's fuel gauge nearing "empty," so they look for a gas station. The generic stations they pass appear dark and foreboding, but then they see a BP station. It's bright and welcoming. The babies fuel up and hit the road again. "Gas stations, a little better, baby," reads the tagline.
I don't think I've ever chosen a gas station out of brand loyalty. I just use the one nearest my apartment. I don't even remember what brand it is. If I'm out on the road when the tank runs low, I pull up at whichever gas pump I happen upon first. (As long as it takes a credit card. I will not prepay the cashier, as this adds unnecessary human interaction to my day.)
Perhaps you're different and pay attention to which company you buy your gas from. BP certainly hopes so: They're spending about $35 million on this worldwide campaign for their service stations (or "retail network"). BP head of marketing Ann Hand acknowledges that the classic industry research says people choose stations mostly because of location or price, but adds that BP's tracking studies show some brand awareness does exist. "This campaign is the next step," she says. "Can we build more brand loyalty? Would you cut across traffic, or go a block out of your way?"
Other major gas-station chains also run ads, but they tend to be more practical in their approach. In characterizing competitors' campaigns, Hand points to "macho" ads about high-performance fuel, with "animals racing through the forest." By contrast, BP is interested in crafting a happy, upbeat mood that it hopes customers will associate with a visit to a BP service station.
This effort starts with the "Say Hey" song—the catchiest ad jingle in recent memory. BP wanted to put a song front and center in the campaign because it's easier for consumers to connect radio ads with TV ads when there's a common theme. This song's precise origins are a bit murky, but it seems to have been adapted from a track by an L.A. band called Message of the Blues. The original song—its refrain is "L.A." instead of "Say Hey," though it still has the infectious whistling—could be heard on the band's MySpace page last week, but now it's mysteriously disappeared. A BP spokesperson says ad agency Ogilvy & Mather will be working on a "re-release of the song based on the well-received lyrics used in the television commercials." (I predict it climbs to the mid-40s on the Billboard charts. Maybe not as successful as the John Mellencamp Chevy song, but far less irritating.)
The other key to the campaign's mood is its use of bold, bright animation. The look suggests a sparkling clean gas-station experience. And along with the babies, it adds a warmth that's missing from most gas-station imagery. My favorite touches: 1) The cranky, anthropomorphic gas pump down the block is wearing an evil-looking eyepatch. 2) Next to the fuel gauge, the babies' car also has gauges indicating bottle and diaper status.
Finally, BP hopes to cement itself as the most "green" of the massive oil companies. To this end, the ad shows little windmills in the background. Also, BP service stations (there are more than 11,000 in the United States alone) have switched from plastic to paper bags at their convenience stores, and hand out trading cards with environmentally sensitive tips for kids (for instance: Use both sides of the paper when you color).
All well and good, but I remain unconvinced that anyone will ever pick a gas station for its brand. Beyond strict quality comparisons (and I think—jungle animal high-octane fuel ads aside—most of us treat gasoline as a fungible commodity these days), we favor certain brands because we wish to associate ourselves with their iconography. For instance, you wear a Lacoste shirt because it says something about you as a person. You're a Lacoste guy. But does anyone aspire to be a BP guy? Would you go to a BP station because you want the BP brand to be a part of your outward identity? Seems unlikely. Once it's in your tank, no one can tell which gas you bought, anyway.
BP wants its logo (that flower/sun thingy, known as the "helios") to be the shorthand promise of a satisfying and environment-friendly service-station experience. These ads are not a bad effort on that score. But ultimately, I think gas-station choice will always come down to price, convenience, and maybe a quick eyeing of the grounds just to make sure they're not intolerably disgusting.
Grade: B-. Hand says this campaign also serves as a way to "bring back some internal pride" among service- station franchisees. Why do they need a pride boost? Well, there was that fatal refinery explosion. And then, last week, that thing where the BP CEO resigned amid a scandal involving a gay affair and lying to a judge. I'm sure the franchisees are stoked about the animated babies, though.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.