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A brief history of car dealer marketing

A brief history of car dealer marketing

Published a year ago

My first job in marketing, over forty years ago, was with the Thompson group as a display advertising representative on one of their regional daily newspapers. At the time they owned The Times, The Sunday Times, Thompson Holidays and much more!

Advertising at the paper was split into two distinct sections. ‘Classifieds’ were at the back of the paper, pushing everything from used cars to second hand prams and ‘personal’ services. These were jammed between the news sections, at the front of the paper, and the sports section, on the back pages.

The much more glamorous ‘Display’ advertising was housed within the news pages at the front of the paper where the main manufacturer brands placed their new car advertisements for the Ford Cortina or the Vauxhall Cavalier.

High premiums were charged for Front page solus positions, front page earpieces and the legendary - ERHP FM, Early Right Hand Page, Facing matter! Motor dealers always wanted the front-page positions and these were booked for years in advance.

As a Display rep I had a monthly target to hit and this required a lot of creative thinking in order to entice the individual motor dealers to part with their ill-gotten gains. Writing witty headlines and designing cool looking ads became one of my most enjoyable daily tasks and, if these were deemed good enough, by a cursory ‘that’s not bad’, then the advertisement would be produced professionally in the paper’s strictly-unionised ‘Artwork studio’ (SOGAT) and, following a lengthy approval process, eventually appear in the paper.

It was always a proud moment to see one of my creations grace the inner pages of the paper, or even better, a front page solus position.  I recall one of my dealers, who was launching a new model, was particularly taken with one of my cheesy headlines - “A-Mazda-cadabra” - and the ad ran for many weeks - Target hit!

Over on the less exciting side of the divide were the classifieds. Endless, mind-numbing lists of dodgy used cars, dictated by telephone, hand scribbled until cramp set in and finally submitted for typesetting by the ‘even-more-unionised’ ‘compositors’ (NGA and NATSOPA).

Back then this was how we all found the cars we wanted to be sold and how the motor trade did its business. It was how ‘Autotrader’ began and how ‘Exchange & Mart’, ‘Loot’ and dozens of other low grade printed rags delivered what we thought we wanted to buy.

And then came the internet!

Gone are the regional newspapers, gone are the local display ads, gone are the classified listings!

Online new and used car listings, for the trade, and the punters, make £billions for the monopoly that is Autotrader (many have tried to compete, all have failed). And G-Forces, now ATG, has cornered the market in dull, predictable, templated dealer websites, they too, driving all their competitors off the road.

Automotive manufacturers have taken complete control of all the marketing and dealers are now no more than processing centres operating to exacting standards dictated by their masters. No longer any room for individuality or creativity at dealer level, no more ‘A-Mazda-Cadabras’, and no more tedious used car listings in the classifieds.

This is all good for the customer, isn’t it? Standardised brand marketing generated at international level, homogenised Euro-bland creative combined with data-driven delivery of media means we all get what they know we need, nothing more, nothing less. Right?

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