Loving Mr Grey

Ask Sri Lankans born in the ’70s to tell you which cars they remember growing up with, and you’ll hear about Austin Cambridges, Morris Minors, “Upali” Fiats, and Beetles. All of which are rubbish. Yes, I know people will put out a fatwah on me for calling a Beetle rubbish, but it is. And yes, I know Upali Wijewardena’s Fiat 128 was the Micro of ’70s Sri Lanka, but you’ll be better off if you put wheels on a Ceylon Tea crate. Plus you’ll be faster. Doesn’t anyone remember a Karmann Ghia, or a Datsun 240Z, or a Mercedes 300? Or at least a Mk1 Golf, for God’s sake? Why do people seem to remember the bland? Somehow, though, I doubt that Sri Lankans in the year 2040 will look back fondly on the Nissan Sunny.

While you’re about it, ask a Sri Lankan to name a great ad from the early days of local television, and it’ll be a pretty predictable choice. The original Airlanka jingle (above) will certainly feature among them, with people still able to sing bits of it or at least hum the tune. There’s one of those dodgy old massage guys on Hikkaduwa beach who sings one part of it (“Blue voters, smiling ice — Sri Lanka, pair of dice”) over and over, as he walks along the sand looking for customers. Then there’ll be the Dot toffee commercials (“Oyagey kate Dot, mage kateth Dot!”), the Thultex spot — the only reason I remember that one is because at 14 years old, I’d never seen that far up a woman’s leg. So we remember this stuff, but were they good ads — did they entertain us (OK, there’s that leg again), engage us? Fuck, no, but we remember them anyway. Mostly because there were far fewer ads around back then.

Now it’s pretty easy to see why people remember great cars and great ads — or great anything for that matter. Cars, movies, books, we remember the ones that were interesting, fun, touching — things that played to our emotions, that entertained us. But what makes us remember things that we have no reason to — why would we remember a packet of washing powder? We wouldn’t, because there’s nothing to remember about it. But somehow Sri Lankans manage it. We even remember the Austin Cambridge. Why?

Perhaps it’s because Sri Lankans, on the whole, prefer the bland and anonymous. We save our spice for our rice, and that’s only because everyone else does it too. Every other day of the week I’m up in front of clients, trying to sell them an ad that I think will do all kinds of wonderful things for their brand. Market share, brand building, top-of-mind, etc etc. And as I pitch that top-of-the-range ad out onto their boardroom tables, I can see them squirm and wait, hesitating over this Scirocco that’s going to have everyone talking and pointing — and believe me these aren’t Porsches; they really are Sciroccos, maybe even RS5s. But no, the client’s waiting for me to run out of revs so that he or she can buy that Toyota Allion that no one will notice. It’ll take them from 15% market share to 17%, smoothly and comfortably, and very very softly. And in an unfeeling, numb coma.

And it’s not just the clients. Last year we built two cars for the same client, but for two different marques. Now you could call this client a Nissan, except this Nissan hasn’t ever built a Z car. So we produced a big plush GT. It was stylish, it was sexy, it was dark and fast, and had a V8. It was everything a GT was supposed to be, plus it had four seats, so it was sensible too. The client loves it. The consumers are lapping it up too, so they obviously like it. But then we also built this client a hot hatch. Now this was no polite Toyota Vitz. It was a fire-breathing, twin-turbo, 300-bhp, torque-steering ball of testosterone that annoyed the shit out of everyone from the managing director to the sales force. This just wasn’t what a Nissan was supposed to do. The customers just weren’t too sure what to make of it. Some old ladies even wrote in to complain that it made them wish they’d never bought a Sunny. They might even buy Corollas in future, it seems. So Nissan decides to pull those testosterone-filled turbos off and market a 4-cylinder 1.3-ltr model. Now everyone’s happy. The consumers are not rushing out to buy it — mostly because no one notices it — and the old ladies are at peace. The MD’s happy that he’s not lost market share, and all the brand managers got a good smacking.

So yes, Sri Lanka does, in the mass, seem not to want to be too edgy in what it consumes. At least for now. And this is also clear when you look at actual taste in cars — the only people with less car sense are the Indians, and that’s not really their fault; for years they’ve been force-fed a diet of Ambassadors and Indicars.

But let’s be fair, let’s take an absolutely objective look at an indicative segment of Sri Lankan cardome — my office car park. Personally, I think this is fairly representative of Colombo’s four-wheeled population: the bulk of it is, of course, Japanese — cars mostly, with a few SUVs — and a smattering of Korean, Indian, and European, ranging from little hatches to the chairman’s big luxury saloon. Throw in a tuned-up Japanese saloon with an exhaust big enough for an endangered Colombo beggar to sleep in, add a sleek sports car, and that’s Colombo in a nutshell. Now ask anyone in my agency which car they’d like to own, and they’ll point to the media director’s Allion, a car that follows Toyota’s tradition of making mid-sized saloons for use as as Taxis. Basically, they took a Premio — which is pretty crap enough — and asked themselves, “how do we make this uglier?” Result, the Allion.

Push my agency crowd a bit more and they’ll point to a Hyundai Sonata — because it’s big and silver — and a BMW 518 — because… well, because it’s a BMW. They’ll also, if they like 4x4s, point out a Land Cruiser. They’ll also pick the chairman’s other ride — a Mitsubishi Montero, not because they like 4x4s, but because a Montero means you’re the chairman.

Now none of the above are really very good cars. The Allion and the Sonata handle like barges in a heavy sea, have steering that’s as exciting as a bottle of Valium, and are just plain ugly. Let’s not even get into horsepower or torque or any of that frivolous mumbo-jumbo Jeremy Clarkson rattles on about. But as I said, they’re big and have “crystal lights” and nice carpeting, so we want ’em. The 518 is, after all, a 5 Series, and you might wonder why I’m dismissing it, but it’s just woefully underpowered, with it’s 1.8ltr putting out a piddly 113bhp. If you want a 5 Series it must be at least a 520. On to the Land Cruiser and Montero — now both these are great if your daily commute means crossing the Yala National Park, but driving enormous 4x4s around Colombo is just loutish. The perfect 4×4 for this city — and with our buggered up streets it kind of makes sense — is a small 4×4. And i don’t mean a girlie RAV4; I mean a twin-turbo Subaru Forrester.

By now, you must be wondering if there are any good cars in that car park. Well, believe me there are, and here they are: First up, the chairman’s weekend ride, a series III Jaguar XJ6. Now, yes, I do know that it goes from 0-100kmph in half an hour, and a Sri Lanka Postal Department telegram must be sent to the steering rack three weeks in advance of a left-hand bend being sighted, but it does have a 3.4ltr straight six, and just oozes old world style. This is Major Gowen in a silk cavalry tie. Next up is an Alfa Romeo 156, one of the more reliable models of car that Alfa ever made, and if you’re comparing saloons in Sri Lanka, I doubt you can find a prettier one. And say what you like, all Alfas are beautiful cars, even the ugly ones. End of story. Coming up next is my own Mitsubishi FTO, which with its 2ltr transversely-mounted V6, will take you up to the 100kmph mark in 6.5 seconds, and with almost 100bhp per litre, is one of the most fun cars you’ll ever drive, even though it’s a front-wheeler. Doesn’t look bad either, and who cares that you have to be Frodo to fit into the back seat. Finally, just making it into this group is a Honda Civic RS — now this is no Type R, but with 145bhp on tap, a stiffened suspension, and stylish lines, it really is a good car.

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying that these aren’t very practical cars, and except for the Honda, they aren’t really. The Jag and Alpha are expensive and troublesome to maintain, and the FTO has only two doors, a low and spine-jarringly stiff ride, and is as thirsty as a Daily News editor at a Sri Lanka Tourism media event. And yes, you’ll lose money when you sell them on (all except maybe that Honda, which makes me wonder if it should have been dropped from the finalists). But boy are they fun to own. And you’ll never ever forget what it was like to drive them. In other words, memorable. And with cars, as with ads, that’s as important as getting from A to B.

So maybe it’s time to buck the trend and be brave; to wear our personalities on our sleeves; to say what we really mean instead of smiling and saying what the neighbours want to hear. Our ads and our cars are as important to our personalities and our brands as the clothes we wear. But people are going to remember you; they’re going to point and whisper and grudgingly admire you for having what they don’t have — style and presence, and above all, big balls.

9 thoughts on “Loving Mr Grey

  1. Ford Capri and Cortina – Still a few around in cmb in great condition.

    Davy the choice of car in SL is most times determined out of sheer economics and affordability. Very few people can afford the upkeep of a sports car. Unlike the presidents son.

    You know how much I love speed, but simple economics demanded that I get the Merc A160. It’ three years now, and we have yet to have one repair on it, other than new tires and service. If I had the money and it’s not prohibitively expensive, I would be running to the Porsche dealership.

    I believe its the same for many. However I do still salivate when watching the Fast and Furious movies.

    As for advertising Davy, unless we change as a culture and the way we do business things will always be the same.

    However, SL all over the world is recognised for innovative action. i.e. Suicide Bombers, Murali, Mendis and Malinga. 🙂

  2. DD, it’s not about money, either in ads or in cars. I’m talking about SL, not the UK, and I’m not talking supercars. Example — the Honda Civic RS is the same price (or cheaper) than a Corolla. Which is more popular? An Alfa 156 is cheaper than an Audi A4. Which is more preferred? A Forrester is cheaper than a Montero. Which is more common?

    Yes, good cars are sometimes inconvenient, and so are good ads.

    And we maybe seen as innovators in cricket and terrorism, but that’s where that image ends.

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more DB.

    It may come down to economics but ultimately what you want is a head turner and a object that other people desire. Might as well spend a bit more and invest in something that will get you from A to B in style. If not get a bloody Maruti and stop watching Discovery Turbo.

    Being a former patron of that particular car park, I know exactly where you come from. Agree with you on the RB’s Honda. Good bloody car. Looks good, performs decently too AND quite affordable. The Montero is just a way of showing of one’s prestige to those who believe big is better. A lame, old school way of thought.

    I think I fall in to the category of beat barrels which create housing options!

    Cheers mate!

  4. I agree with what you’re saying, but I don’t think this mainstream mundaneness is unique to Sri Lanka.

    Look at the top-sellers in the US: Accord, Corolla, Camry. As bland as they come. Look at the UK, with all the amazing choice they have: CAR Magazine once ran an editorial berating Britons for buying mostly insipid Fords and Vauxhalls. Japan, which should be full of manga-tastic drift-zillas, is in reality a sea of hello kitty econoboxes. And these are all countries where it’s far more affordable to buy and run an interesting car than it is in SL.

    It’s the same with advertising. The vast majority of ads anywhere in the world are of the Allion variety. Reliable, hardworking and painstakingly inoffensive. Even in markets that we imagine to be all hip and horny. Does that mean that all mainstream offerings are doomed to dullness? Maybe, maybe not.

    Until the late ’90s, Honda Civics were stylish, innovative, and fun. The Euro Civics still are. And they are bestsellers. The Suzuki Swift is now so common that it’s easy to forget how rather bold it was when it first came out. CAR Magazine, which is usually obsessed with wild British supercar projects, named it Car Of The Year. The Ford S-Max is another example – it’s just a family hauler for goodness sake, but it’s technically clever and looks like a million dollars. And it’s a hit.

    All these models are successful because they employ flair and creativity to address customer needs and stir their emotions without gratuitously challenging their values or mocking their intelligence. I believe the same works for advertising. But it’s a hard act to pull off, hence the abundance of Sunny mediocrity punctuated by odd flashes of New Beetle absurdity.

    Thank god for mad men. I’m damn glad that there are guys out there who buy Lamborghinis and drive them pedal to the metal. Just as I’m glad for the creative folk who produce the mind-bending work that sweeps the award metal. But let’s face it, exotic Italian machinery is meant for the riviera not the rush hour, while shock & awe ad campaigns are better suited to tattoo parlours than toothbrushes.

    Doing that kind of stuff for a mainstream brand in the real world – whether in New York, London or Colombo – makes about as much sense as gunning a Gallardo in Galle Road traffic. Great fun but you’re probably not going to get very far.

  5. It’s an interesting subject and I share the views of Rajivmw; that it’s very much the same the world over. Here in the UK it’s true to say that there are far more “adventurous” cars on the road but, as a percentage of cars on the road overall, I think the situation is much the same as in Lanka.

    Alfa 156s are common here, but still there must be about ten A4s for every 15 around. Why? Because the A4 is the safe, reliable and trustworthy choice, or the 3 series is in that group.

    Perhaps the principle is the same in advertising, that because the market is much bigger there are more risktakers, but still roughly the same as a ration of the whole scene.

  6. @ david I cant remember the thultex ad but i can very well remember the ‘Ranpa’ slipper add and i was facinated about the amount of womens feet that they showed 😉

  7. Agree with Galicissa on that Thultex ad!! LOL I even remember the jingle, ‘Egay Mudu Paadey Gigiri Selenne..’ (That phrase just before the wrap around skirt rides tantelisingly up!!)

    Bit off topic, but one of the sharpest memories in riding in those cars in the ’70s is the smell of leather on really hot and sunny day!! (No tinted windows and A/C then!)

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