Mazda asks, “What do you drive?”

The first time I saw this ad I was watching an episode of “Modern Family” on Hulu. Normally all the Hulu ads I get are aimed at families who want to run to Disney land or people who need fifteen different shades and tints of lipstick, and I end up opening another tab to check my email.

But when this voice over asked me, right off the bat, “What do you drive” my head snapped up and I flicked back to the other tab. It’s the kind of question that goes straight to car enthusiasts’ hearts, because on some level we define ourselves with what we drive.

It’s not that owners reflect the various stereotypes associated with cars. For example, I’ve owned a ’71 Lincoln and had a ’96 Oldsmobile as a daily driver, but I’m not an older man. No, what I was interested in was the style of the old Lincoln and the space and comfort of the Olds. The cars we own and drive are a signifier that tells the world what we want in a car. Someone who buys a Lotus Exige is saying that they value a car that can rip their face off with g-forces it generates. It it’s a Toyota Camry, the owner’s saying that they value reliability, comfort, and fuel economy. It it’s a brand new BMW, they want a balance of driving enjoyment, luxury, and techno-wizardry. And so on and so forth.

Mazda is trying to tap into this feeling, and they must.

They’re a small, independent company now. Ford’s sold off all but 3.5 percent of its share, denying Mazda access to their deep pockets. It’s a cold world out there for independent brands right now; look at SAAB’s troubles and Mitsubishi’s listlessness for proof. In order to survive Mazda must give consumers a reason to buy their products, and this commercial hits that nail on the head. Then it pounds it home until the plank is a small collection of splinters and pulp.

Starting out with appliances and talking about massive corporations churning out bland, repetitive products is perfect. It positions Mazda as an outsider using language familiar to car enthusiasts. How often have bloggers and their commenters used the words “appliance,” “bland,” and “beige” in talking about Toyotas, Hondas, Chevrolets, and Fords, whether or not it’s deserved? For better or worse, all the time. This commercial connects on that level and then expands on it. 

Mazda talks about “…building less, building better for a discerning few,” and asks “Are you one of the few?” They are talking directly to their target market: people who want to enjoy driving their car, people who want some vim and vigor when the slip behind the wheel of their car. Mazda works to set itself apart by declaring: “If it’s not worth driving, it’s not worth building.”

Bold words, and just the sort of thing driving enthusiasts want to hear. Mazda is preaching to the choir in order to rebuild its image as the “zoom-zoom” brand.

It’s the best thing for them to do, really. No one claims that Mazda’s reputation is founded on reliability, as with Honda and Toyota. No one claims that they’re part of a greater tradition, such as Chevrolet and Ford, and they’re certainly not the high tech performance monsters that roar out of a BMW or Mercedes-Benz factory.

No. Mazdas have always been about driving enjoyment, about having fun behind the wheel. It’s not about power, it’s not about speed. It’s always been about carving through a corner in a car that puts a smile on the driver’s face. This commercial plumbs the depths of that idea and brings Mazda back to its roots on the periphery of a the market: a place where excitement, not sales rankings, is the measure of success.

I just hope that the enthusiasts will hear this call and act on it. After all, even when a company purposely sets itself apart from its competitors and presents different values it still has to make money.

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