Some television advertisements for automotive repair need upgrading. Instead of exploiting the grossest, most negative images of our industry, advertisers ought to accentuate positive aspects of their businesses. Sure, ads highlighting the worst aspects of our business may get big laughs and high viewer scores. But long after the laughter stops, the ads become counterproductive. Ultimately, these ads hurt all of us—including the advertisers who create them—because they help perpetuate highly negative images of an industry that already has too many black eyes.
Simply put, Mr. Advertiser, people who sling mud always look muddy themselves.
To examine the issue another way, lots of negatives never add up to a positive. But many positive images ALWAYS add up to more positives!
The latest example of an auto repair ad taking the low road comes from Pep Boys—Manny, Moe and Jack, the Philadelphia-based auto parts and service provider. Unless a tire dealer has been hiding under a rock somewhere, he knows that this continually growing operation is a formidable competitor.
The Pep Boys ad I cite pokes fun at two mechanics (I dare not call these fellows technicians) trying to force the right battery into the wrong car—the point being, our mechanics do things right.
Out in the service bay, the most degrading thing one worker can call another is a ``hammer mechanic.'' The saying goes that when a part doesn't fit, this fellow seeks a larger hammer instead of the proper part.
The Pep Boys ad invokes the image of an obstinate child forcing a round peg into a square hole, suggesting that this kid grows into the dreaded hammer mechanic. In it, the fellow uses a hammer to force an oversize battery into a car against the protests of a mortified car owner standing nearby.
Usually, companies don't gamble precious bucks on ads that don't score well with focus groups. But if Pep Boys executives told me this ad was a hit with focus groups, I'd still assess it the same way: It's wrong because it perpetuates a vicious stereotype that serves no one—consumer or tradesmen—over the long haul.
Let's get real here, gentlemen. We all know these auto repair dinosaurs are out there, and consumers do, too. At any poolside, at any block party, at any tavern stool you'll hear first-hand accounts of what hammer mechanics have done to consumers and to the trade's reputation. So why dredge up this image for a TV ad?
When I was schooled in the art of essay writing at Penn State University, my instructor always gave extra credit to students who successfully attacked a stereotype with the pen or typewriter. Besides teaching us how to assemble thoughts and words in a persuasive manner, he continually urged us to live life accentuating the positive.
Advertising is a highly refined form of persuasion. Perhaps Pep Boys' leadership missed this class. Obviously, their style of persuasion cites negatives by taking the cheapest shot available.
Stereotypes cut both ways, gentlemen. For example, some Pep Boys executives are Jewish. Suppose a clever ad writer creates a television spot utilizing negative Jewish stereotypes. Suppose the ad scores well with focus groups. Would those scores automatically qualify this as a good ad?
No, such an ad would only demonstrate the writer's cynicism, meanness and lack of creativity. Truly creative people create memorable work without dealing in mean stereotypes.
Sure, it's more challenging to persuade people without resorting to cheap shots. But if your auto repair operation really is more honest, professional, efficient and faster than the competition, then the ad writers have plenty of positive examples they can cite to prove you offer the best value.
The way I see it, it's a difference of degree, not kind. Whether it's an ethnic group or the hapless hammer mechanic, perpetuating stereotypes is just plain unethical—not to mention a short-sighted business practice.
I see countless techs at seminars and industry functions. Everywhere I travel, I hear con-scientious men and women say they can't wait for the day when hammer mechanics are finally an extinct breed. In the same breath, these people—the backbone of the auto repair industry—are begging for more respect.
However trivial the hammer-mechanic image seems to some, it's a big deal to the folks who count—the folks turning wrenches. They deserve better than tired old stereotypes. And frankly, an outfit the size of Pep Boys can do better ad-wise.
As my old Penn State prof used to say, ``You can't go wrong when you take the high road!''