In car ads, desire for freedom sets the pace

Jeremy Holden is senior vice president/co-director of account planning for McKinney, an advertising and communications agency in Durham whose clients include Audi of America. His job is to understand what makes consumers tick.

Q: When ads stress speed, what psychological buttons are you trying to push?

A: The essential emotion is freedom. To understand this, we need to recognize that people view their car as an extension of their home.

Your home is where you are free to do whatever you want to do. You can invite anyone you want to or not. You can play your music as loud as you want to. You carry that feeling of freedom and autonomy into what you do with your car. How fast you drive becomes an expression of your personal freedom, and you become resentful if you feel that freedom is inhibited.

Q: How does speed play into general marketing of consumer products?

A: You're playing into a fundamental societal trend, which is instant gratification with things done within your time frame and on your terms. It's part of our psyche. As a society, getting what we want instantly gives us a feeling of control, and the faster life moves, the greater our need for control. Think of Tivo and DVR as examples of where consumers can control how they are marketed to. It makes it essential that in the conversations we have with consumers, they feel empowered.

There's also a superficial aspect that we shouldn't forget. One of the most pervasive pop culture images that we see is that people we want to be like drive fast. Think of Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible," James Bond in "Casino Royale," the Transporter movies, "The Fast and the Furious," or the recent remake of "Miami Vice." Even Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights" saying, "Either you're first, or you're last!" This is not a new phenomenon. Go back to the classic movie,"Le Mans" and remember Steve McQueen saying, "When you're racing, it's life. Anything before or after is just waiting."

Q: What are some successful commercials with speed as a centerpiece?

A: There was a Cadillac ad a while back, where the whole scenario was a new sports model backing out of a tunnel very slowly, then bam! It took off. The whole idea was the metaphor of the car coming out like a bullet. It's hard to imagine a more overt piece of symbolism to demonstrate that a car is fast. With Audi, we were able to use their motor sports heritage to showcase the speed of the cars.

One of our recent NASDAQ commercials features the Comcast CEO in the middle of Times Square with traffic moving all around him at accelerated speed. It spoke to how fast the world is moving and how you have to keep up.

In many European countries, there are huge restrictions that we don't have in the U.S. in terms of what you can show a car doing in a commercial. In Belgium, for example, you cannot show any kind of speed at all. Even if the car goes through a puddle, you can't show water splashing, which suggests speed. They have to find other aspirational ways to sell the car. The essential principle is to speak to other powerful emotions -- joy, indulgence, security, even love, which are more than pure testosterone-driven emotions.

Q: Think you could sell Americans on slowing down?

A: It's certainly possible to communicate the value of a slower pace. One of our commercials from a number of years ago featured a father on a car journey with his daughter, and the voice-over talked about, "If I take every back road, I can hold onto my daughter for just a little bit longer." That was a very successful commercial we ran for Audi.

Q: Anything to add?

A: More than any other society, ours is based on the idea of personal freedom. It's true in our political language and our communications. You get in your car, and you feel speed is your entitlement.

Until the average driver gets in their car and thinks as much about the needs of those they are sharing the road with as their own needs, we will see the speed phenomena continue.