The car industry has made a virtue out of making complex lumps of metal, rubber and plastic appear like highly desirable objects of worship. It is, after all, the second most important purchase of our lives, after a house. So when you think of communication around cars, you think about very expensive TV spots and lusciously indulgent print ads. In the old days these fleeting glimpses of the car of your dreams on the box or in a glossy magazine had to work harder. From there your next step would have been a phone call to order a brochure or even a visit to an intimidatingly clinical showroom. Either way, instant gratification simply wasn’t on the agenda.
Nowadays, of course, you don’t need to interact with humans at all – at least not until you are serious about buying. You can go online and “experience” the car in its full glory. You can take it on a virtual test drive, you can press all the buttons on the dashboard, and you can learn all you could possibly need to know about how, why and where the car of your dreams was built. Brilliant! Or is it?
Let’s take the Honda website for example. Go to its homepage and click on “Explore the new Civic”. You are presented with a quote from one Mr Matsumoto, Civic project leader at Honda: “Customers should not think ‘this is a good car’, but rather feel ‘I can enjoy this car’…” Click on the car and you enter a deeply engaging piece of interactive design. You can spin the car around, dissect the engine, fold the seats down, press lots of buttons and then watch short video sequences explaining every detail of the car. More than even the most knowledgeable salesman could ever show you in the showroom.
So, I know “this is a good car”, but do I feel “I can enjoy this car”? Herein lies the problem. The entire site has been built in Flash around a collection of 3D rendered sequences to facilitate the interaction and they’re not very good. This isn’t Hollywood 3D, nowhere near. It’s not even Captain Scarlet 3D. In fact I feel like I’m playing a bonus level of Gran Turismo on my PlayStation rather than exploring an enormously “fun” motor. I didn’t feel a thing. It left me absolutely cold. There’s no excuse; the technology and skills exist to either create this in high-end ultra-realistic 3D or even to film it with some clever post-production. It could be the ultimate interactive car ad, up there with the award winning TV spots, but in the end it just looks like the poor pretender and no amount of clever interaction and detail can rescue it. This obsession with sub-standard 3D renders unfortunately extends to the whole site and cheapens the entire range.
Speaking of the word “explore”, I am intrigued by how meaningless this has become as a buzz word, and nowhere more so than in the virtual world of cars. Go to the BMW site, for example, and clicking on “explore” simply takes you to a load of technical specifications, which threw me a bit. Their nom-de-jour for the kind of stuff I am looking for is “experience” – high promise indeed. Clicking on this word anywhere in the site takes you to an understated but slick interactive sequence of gorgeous photography intercut with snappy and emotive copy, with the odd video sequence thrown in. It delivers everything I expect from BMW – controlled elegance and premium simplicity. I admire them for working so diligently within the limitations of the medium and not trying to create Hollywood effects on a Hollyoaks budget. But I don’t want a BMW now any more than I did before. It doesn’t really go far enough to create a real point of difference with a printed brochure. Whatever happened to BMW Films?
Surely Porsche will get it right. The site, designed by Bassier, Bergmann & Kindler, is simple and minimal. It is 99 per cent HTML, which is definitely no crime, except for a multimedia gallery which includes panoramas and videos, amongst other things. The first video I clicked on was for the 911 Turbo. It opens with a voice-over declaring “not everything a man touches instantly becomes a masterpiece” and then proceeds to show a sequence of a man (and I’m wincing while I write this) making a mess of cooking a soufflé. Maybe I was unlucky with my first choice, so I proceeded to the Boxter S section: “Sporting spirit: it’s an inner attitude” – video of a man multi-task jogging whilst walking his baby. At this point I decided to leave Porsche’s site before I lost any respect I had left for them.
Volkswagen takes a slightly different approach to its online presence. The main site is pretty standard stuff, but each model of car has its own separate micro site. While this feels fragmented, it does work for this particular manufacturer as each car has such a radically different target audience. One example is the New Beetle. The micro site (designed by Tribal DDB) promotes “Beetle Art” – a selection of vinyl stickers that you can use to customise your beloved beetle. It’s fun and light-hearted and allows you to try lots of colour combinations interactively. More notable though is the Phaeton micro site (also by Tribal DDB) which has a mini solar system of exploratory button stars. Initially it appears random, but you soon realise that, as you move through the cluster of stars, you unlock more and more detail about certain aspects of the car. Quite soon it becomes both intuitive and very engaging. This is great use of interactive design to express a simple concept.
Whilst I’m on the subject of micro sites, the Saab 9-5 site (designed by Lowe Tesch), which won Best in Book in the last Creative Review Annual, is a sublime example of this particular phenomenon. Looped Blair
Witch style video urges you to interact by clicking on the glowing eyes of animals hiding in the forest. Clicking on the red fox gives you a low level view of the car allowing you to walk round it from a fox’s perspective. The eagle owl gives you a high level fly-by view. And finally the moose allows you to walk up to the car and take a good look inside. The integration with the TV ad is exceptional and, whilst both words are conspicuous by their absence, it really does allow you to “experience” and “explore” the car.
So, going back to Mr Matsumoto’s statement about feeling and not thinking, I really do want to “feel”. 3D animations aren’t working for me, the video is all a bit ropey and if I wanted to see a photograph pan I’d simply move my eyes across a glossy brochure whilst staring at it at point blank range. What can a car manufacturer do to make me engage with and fall in love with its product?
I believe Mercedes Benz has the answer at Agency Republic’s www.a-to-s.co.uk. There are no cars in this site (unless you click on the model chooser, which is secondary to the main spectacle). It uses abstract interaction to express 19 values revolving around attention to detail and craftsmanship. It starts with the “A-pillar” – a gutter that channels rain water over the roof rather than along the side windows – and ends with “sound” – the exceptional sound proofing that these cars benefit from.
The former is expressed by having to use your mouse to channel rain drops out of the way so that you can read the copy. The latter is a selection of sound graphs attached to a number of harsh ambient sounds that you can activate and play around with: clicking on the line at the bottom (which turns out to be the edge of the window) causes the window to close elegantly before finally muffling out all of the external noise. I could go on about all 19 of these. I now know everything there is to know about Mercedes – or at least everything that the manufacturer wants me to know – and it was all incredibly enjoyable.
But most importantly, even though I didn’t even see the car, I most definitely felt it.
Victor Benady is creative director of newly formed digital communications company RedNomad