Ad Report Card

Buy This Car Because It’s Ugly

Scion’s peculiar new ad campaign.

Ad for The 2008 Scion xB
Ad for the Toyota Scion xB

The Spot: A wrecking ball sweeps back and forth, barely missing a pair of identical cars parked just beyond the two ends of its arc. An off-screen child’s voice intones, “He loves me, he loves me not” as the ball swings closer and closer to the cars. Finally, one of the cars gets smashed, and the camera trains its eye on the carcass. “Love it or loathe it,” says the narrator. “The 2008 Scion xB.” (Click here to watch the ad.)

Generally, ads portray products as pristine treasures. Lighting and camera angles conspire to conjure a glossy, gotta-have-it glow that beams out from laptops, cell phones, blue jeans, and hamburgers. Thus it’s jarring to come across an ad like this one, in which the product is first obliterated and then put on display as a crumpled mess.

But Scion has lately seemed to harbor a bit of a self-destructive streak. Walking around my neighborhood a little while back, I happened on a large billboard for the Scion xB. It had a photo of the car and two big check boxes. One was labeled “Champ,” the other “Chump.” Both were empty.

The billboard struck me as a risky ploy, marketingwise. That “Chump” box was far too tempting. Some mischievous kid with a spray can could easily climb up there and X it in. Even nonvandalizing passers-by might feel welcome to place a mental check mark there. Why would Scion invite us to think poorly of its product—and even suggest specific, disparaging language for us to associate with it?

It turns out the Champ/Chump billboard is part of an ongoing Scion campaign called “Polarization.” Other outdoor and print ads offer further check-box choices. Among them: “Adore/Abhor,” “Eye Candy/Eyesore,” and “Hell yes!/Hell no!” This TV spot—with its two identical xBs on either side of the screen and the “he loves me, he loves me not” voice-over—continues to hammer home the stark-duality theme.

Kimberley Gardiner, national marketing communications manager at Scion, explains that the campaign springs from the xB’s polarizing design. The blunt and boxy wagon has a vaguely Brutalist, flirting-with-ugly aesthetic. Instead of cracking self-deprecating jokes (perhaps about function trumping form), Scion decided to get confrontational. “It’s not something you often see from a car company,” says Gardiner. “Usually, a car ad is about how everyone should love it and run out to the dealership to buy it.”

The approach is in large part dictated by Scion’s target audience: 18- to 24-year-old men. This demographic tends to favor brands with a bit of in-your-face attitude. To reach them, Scion has used niche marketing—street teams, music industry tie-ins, etc.—and is airing this ad late at night on guy-centric cable networks like Spike, G4, Fuse, and the Adult Swim programming bloc on the Cartoon Network. * (Time was also bought on BET and the Spanish-language SiTV. Gardiner says Scion “does well with younger African-American and Latino male buyers.”)

The ad itself borrows its mood and direction from horror films. Listen to the opening sounds: dripping water, creaking metal. The spookily flat, disinterested voice of a child is another horror staple, dating back to chillers like The Shining, The Omen, and The Bad Seed. With the wrecking ball’s mechanized, impassive destruction, set in a dank void lit by dim fluorescence, the ad seems particularly indebted to the more recent Saw series—a set of torture-gore films that appeals strongly (perhaps only) to young men.

Knowing your core market and how best to grab it by the lapels are of course important marketing skills. But it’s also possible to attune your brand to one demographic without pushing away all others. There’s a real danger in adopting an aggressive, intentionally polarizing tone, as Scion has: You can repel buyers who might otherwise have considered your product. When the ad shows us the xB after it’s been totaled by the wrecking ball (smashed glass, bent metal), it looks like there’s been a horrific car crash. This sort of raw, extreme imagery is unlikely to play well with older consumers, who’d rather not imagine exactly how their car would look in the wake of a violent collision.

Scion would argue that older drivers just aren’t who they’re after, and that the brand is better served by laser-focusing on a specific target. And pissing off the olds is an excellent method of sucking up to aggro youths. According to Ad Age, Scion was the most efficient car advertiser last year, in terms of ad dollars spent per vehicle sold, so they’ve clearly worked out a cost-effective means of reaching the groups they want to reach. Those young buyers—once roped in by an entry-level Scion—might well graduate to corporate cousins Toyota and Lexus somewhere down the line. But Scion, in its current form, is a very low-volume brand with a lot of room to grow. And the fact is, you never know who a goofy-looking car might end up appealing to.

Consider the Honda Element, another modestly priced, boxy wagon. Honda designed the car with young people in mind, labeling it a “dorm room on wheels,” but when the Element hit showrooms the average age of its buyers turned out to be 41. Likewise, the xB—with its generous cabin space, solid engineering, and low sticker price—might, in time, find a fan base among practical-minded car buyers of all ages. Unless Scion succeeds in stiff-arming everyone but the youngsters.

Grade: C. Setting aside the ad’s effectiveness as a sales tool, I didn’t find the execution of the spot all that artful. I wasn’t gripped by suspense, wondering whether or not the wrecking ball would hit a car. I didn’t find the cinematography or art direction especially compelling. It was low-grade horror—a neutered version of an R-rated frightfest. If Scion insists on aiming its pitch at young dudes (who are the only people watching the late-night programs these ads are aired against), they’d better make ads that will grab young dudes’ attention and hold them riveted to the screen. I just can’t see this spot achieving that.

Correction, July 28, 2008: This piece originally stated that Adult Swim is a programming bloc on Comedy Central. It appears on the Cartoon Network. (Return to the corrected sentence.)