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Guess who's really in the driver's seat?

Found your soul mates in the coolly complex folks on TV car ads? Sorry, but it's not soul -- it's psychographics.

August 22, 2004|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

It was early 2001. After years of toiling for slave wages, I'd just gotten a big raise. I could finally afford to exchange my 10-year-old Saab -- and all the post-adolescent longing it represented -- for a new car, with no emotional baggage, that guaranteed me a seat at the adults' table.

That's when I first noticed the TV ads for Volkswagen's new sedan, the Passat. They were shot on film that looked grainy and washed out, and the person doing the talking was just out of frame. There was no sales pitch, no sexy drive along a serpentine coastal road. In fact, there was no discussion of the car at all.

These ads were all about the drivers.

Each spot featured one individual, who looked about my age, attractive but nonthreatening. They were alone in their cars, speaking directly to the camera with intimacy, candor and just a glimmer of self-consciousness about their wild youth and reluctant adulthood.

I was mesmerized. They sounded just like me.

"No matter how good things get," said one man while driving over a bridge, "I still get this feeling this guy's going to come to my door and he's going to say, 'We talked to your parents. We know what you did in college. We have pictures. And all this -- the house, the kids, the widescreen TV -- it's not yours. It doesn't belong to you. It was meant for somebody else.' "

In another spot, a woman wearing a suit and pearl earrings, her blond hair just so, described her days as a Krokus fan. "I love metal," she said while driving through what looked like Stepford. "This one show, I was so excited, I passed out."

A new dad, completely incredulous that he was responsible for raising another human, said, "Suddenly, I'm the one saying, 'Don't touch the cookie on the ground.' And I'm really thinking: 'Five-second rule. That cookie just hit the ground. That cookie is still good.' "

There was always a pause after the monologue, and then Volkswagen's tagline: "Your secret's safe with us."

Never had an advertiser so brilliantly captured my state of mind at precisely the moment I was experiencing it. These people were my soul mates. Successful, but awaiting the inevitable punch line. Cynical, but cautiously optimistic.

To think a car company knew me this well was profoundly reassuring. Surely, a campaign that so deftly tapped the inner truths of my special group must have required intense study by a team of experts.

Not so, says Arnold Communications chairman and chief creative officer Ron Lawner, whose company created the campaign. "You must have been the right age," he said.

That is, late 20s to early 40s. In other words, Gen-X. All those traits I'd considered so unique to me and my friends were, in Lawner's world, just another "psychographic."

We are, according to his findings, "honest, straight shooters, with a sense of humor, who want to stay grounded regardless of how successful you get." And, he added, "still waiting for the other shoe to fall, hoping they don't find out 'I don't know what I'm doing.' "

A few weeks after I saw the ads, I visited a Volkswagen dealership. There was virtually nothing the salesman could have said to talk me out of this car. It was, as marketers say, an emotional decision.

That day, I drove home a silver Passat with leather interior, a five-disc CD changer and seat warmers.

In retrospect, the car was too expensive and too big. But thanks to those TV ads, I've never felt more sure of a purchase than the moment I drove it off the lot.

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