Watch Me Do: Buick's Self-Aware Campaign

Advertising is not exactly a field of storytelling that many consider to be well worth serious analysis. Specifically, I want to discuss with you all a campaign that Buick launched in 2014, and that continues to this day, in which Buick advertisements explicitly discuss the Buick brand. This is in no way typical of ad campaigns. Most companies don’t use their advertising to explicitly tell the public how the public feels about their product, but instead instructs them on how to feel about it without point-blank prescriptions. It would, of course, be tempting to read this as nothing more than a cheap and easy way to rebrand, but I think there’s something more to explore. Namely, that Buick here is structuring their ad campaign into an years-long self-aware story that, while not especially deep or remarkable, is nonetheless an impressive commitment to telling a single story that has a clear plot and payoff over a long stretch of time.

Let’s start with how the campaign kicked off:

The message here is clear, so much so that even analyzing it seems superfluous. Buick is back, and it's unrecognizable-in a good way. Every frame and word of this commercial is bent toward showing us just how the new Buick is "expectation-shattering." In other words, what we have now is, quite literally, not your grandma's Buick (what, you thought they just stumbled onto the idea of using a literal grandmother as one of the characters?). What's more interesting to analyze just HOW Buick paints this picture for us. In this case, the car company chooses to break the fourth wall in a way, and discuss explicitly its brand's place in society. This actually has two clever effects. The first is to head off the inevitable criticisms of this ad campaign at the pass. It essentially says to you: oh, you think this is a ridiculous rebranding campaign that's just smoke and mirrors because you know what Buick is actually like? Yeah, that's what all these people thought, and they turned out to be dead wrong. Why not give it a try yourself before looking just as foolish? The second effect of this framing is that the campaign mirrors the real-world story of Buick: the brand has upgraded, and people are discovering it for the first time. That trend would only continue this year, when Buick released the following ad.

Again, it seems almost moot to analyze this advertising. The point is abundantly clear: Buick’s catching on. While most people still don't recognize the protagonists' new SUV, they no longer insist that the car in question can't possibly be a Buick, and they all quickly purchase one of their own. However, this ad becomes more interesting an ad when analyzed in conjunction with the prior ad. In that context—which we know is a fair context to analyze this in given the repetition of the music—it becomes clear that Buick is not using self-reference lazily or for cheap effects; they're crafting a narrative that actually reflects the real-world progress of their brand. Keep in mind that this ad was released almost four years after the previous video, a shockingly long time, especially in a world where ad campaigns seem to change every few months, for any commercial entity that isn't an entertainment network to devote to telling a single story. That makes it even more likely that these videos aren't simply stumbling into some semblance of narrative by accident. They're actively engaged in writing this plot over multiple years, with a genuinely impressive level of commitment. It’ll become even more impressive in the future.

In this case, analyzing the place of these ads in a larger narrative is a bit more difficult a task, as I believe this arc of advertising is going to continue over the next few years and, eventually, reach a conclusion on its own that will either prove or disprove my analysis. Instead, it’s probably most instructive to make both a point and a prediction. The prediction is that, sometime in the next few years, Buick will run a new ad campaign that completes the narrative, in which people confronted with a sleek and stylish new car are no longer confused and can instantly recognize that it’s a Buick. This would both feel like a refreshing and even comical twist to consumers after being primed for years to expect a certain kind of ad from Buick, and also bring the narrative arc of the ads to a satisfying and logical conclusion. The point is that this campaign is not a remarkably special one. Tactics like this were used by Starbucks for their 2015 and 2016 holiday cups as well, and plenty of other companies plan campaigns out years in advance. Buick’s campaign won’t win any awards, and indeed that makes it all the more instructive. There is genuine artist and storytelling to be found in advertising. We just have to see it for what it is.

With excitement and optimism,