Accentuating the Negative

December 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted in slightly edited form at Sociological Images

Try not to think about an Oldsmobile. 

I’ve been thinking about Oldsmobile.  I mentioned it in passing in the previous post, and since then I’ve been wondering about “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” – the brand’s swan song.  Matthew Yglesias at Slate thinks that the campaign alienated the regular customers, the ones who bought a new Olds every few years, saying to them in effect, “You’re a geezer, an Oldster, and have been for a while – sans youth, sans sex, sans taste, sans everything except your crummy car.” 

The tag that completed the famous set-up line was, “The new generation of Olds.”
The word “generation” was key. If you recall, each commercial featured a celebrity and one of his or her offspring. This is why the campaign is so damn silly.
That’s from the ad man who claims to have created that tag.  He also has some war stories from the shoots, including one about William Shatner’s daughter’s nipples (here).  But I digress.

The target of the campaign was to attract young car buyers, but it missed badly.  Why?  My guess is the futility of negation.  Saying what something is not doesn’t give people a clear picture of what that something actually is.  But that’s not the problem here.  The message was clear, especially with that tag about generations.

The problem is that direct negation can reinforce the idea you are trying to deny – as in the paradoxical command to not think about an elephant. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon in his televised address about Watergate.  It’s his most remembered line, and when he spoke it, the TV screen might as well have had an overlay flashing the words “Game Over.”

If the denial contradicts general perceptions (i.e., the brand), people might not hear it at all, or worse, they might hear the opposite.  Ever since fact-checking went public in a big way a few years ago, we’ve seen corrections to the lies that politicians have told about one another.  But as
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown (here), corrections can boomerang, especially when they clash with ideas the reader already has.
Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? . . . Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

So what’s a struggling car company to do about its doddering demographics?  They can’t go back to 1905 and “Come away with me Lucille.”* 

Unfortunately, the hip hop dudes were walking to their Escalades, Beamers, and Lambos.  Not a Cutlass to be seen.

 Maybe putting the idea into the youth idiom of the day (the late 1980s) would have worked:
Your father’s Oldsmobile . . . . NOT!
(Now you know why I never went into advertising.)

* Times change, cars change, language changes.  This pretty waltz from 1905 concludes with lines that by mid-century would have seemed amusingly suggestive:
You can go as far as you like with me
 In my merry Oldsmobile.
You can hear that line in the opening of this video (after the 15-second intro). To sing along karaoke style, fast forward to about 3:25.


Paulo Ribeiro said...

Seems like this is easily fixed with a name change. They certainly wouldn't be the first company to dump their existing brand.

maxliving said...

Yeah, even Stringer Bell gets it:

Jay Livingston said...

I remembered this scene. And I like the idea of Stringer Bell going after the Olds driver market: not your father's crack cocaine.