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Unmistakeably Unfunny

CitroŽn UK's humorous TV commercial for the new C5 model is no laughing matter, says John Reynolds

Do the Germans still eat kilos of sausages every day, washed down by litres of beer, all served by buxom waitresses wearing dirndl dresses?

Do they still dance to the oom-pah music of Bavarian brass bands, while wearing lederhosen and Tyrolean hats?

Do they still fight duels?

Viewers of CitroŽn UK's latest TV commercial for the new C5 saloons and tourer estates might well conclude as much. This controversial sixty-second long mini-feature-film shows scenes evoking  the days of Kaiser Wilhelm, a century ago. To some observers, it even seems to be suggesting that these Junkers traditions are still alive and flourishing in the land of the Audi and BMW today, sixty years after the collapse of the Third Reich and the birth of the Bundesrepublic!

Shot against the snow-bound background of a Bavarian schloss, it depicts a fencing match in which a gaunt Teutonic figure claims victory by lopping off the feather in his opponent's cap with a flourish of his sabre. Then, to the sounds of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries,  he jumps into his CitroŽn C5 saloon and storms off down the Autobahn in the direction of  Berlin, pausing only to refresh himself with a bierstein full  of lager and a plate of bockwurst, at a gasthaus enroute.

Arriving at the German capital, the scar-faced hero parks his C5 at the Brandenburg Gate and steps out of the driving seat to admire its stylish lines.  According to the film's titles and soundtrack, this new automobile from CitroŽn is not so much Gallic as Germanic - unmistakeably German but Made in France. 

To say that this startling claim has caused a stir in Great Britain would be something of an understatement. When it was first screened early in June, in step with the launch of the new car in the UK, the advert met with widespread surprise and disbelief. Many of CitroŽn's existing British customers and supporters, traditionally Francophile, were aghast at what they saw, and  accused CitroŽn of borrowing the symbols of fascism to create a crude caricature of Germany that has no connection with modern-day reality. How could their favourite French car-maker be portrayed as being anything less than completely French, they asked?

Indeed, the advert's Teutonic imagery even attracted the attention of a group of left-wing Members of Parliament who signed a motion in the House of Commons condemning it as "irresponsible, inappropriate and tasteless", demanding that it should be withdrawn immediately Moreover, although it was not shown in France, except on satellite TV transmissions from the UK, the French were also  deeply offended, criticising it as "abysmal and totally thoughtless in the way that it evokes a painful part of European history ". Reportedly, CitroŽn France received 3,200 complaints from the French public, while the subject was raised in the Senate. where its facetious use of outdated racial stereotypes was strongly criticised.

The disapproval was not entirely universal however, At the July 2008 car advertising awards held by the automobile trade magazine Motor Trader, the commercial won first prize, beating off competition from Ford and V.W. Accepting the award, CitroŽn UK's marketing director, Ian Hughes, said  " We are thrilled that this advert is attracting new customers to the brand".

Consequently, CitroŽn UK remains unrepentant  and the "unmistakeably German" themed campaign continues to run.. Rejecting criticism, a spokesman for the Slough-based filiale recently described it as "witty and provocative ", claiming that it had achieved its objectives among the target market. "Our research has shown that the ad has some of the best-ever recall and attribution rates of any of our previous adverts and, as sales of  the New C5 are running ahead of our target it seems that it is working well."

Clearly, their belief is that any publicity is good publicity as long as it is noticed; the only sin is to be invisible. This is perhaps an understandable point of view considering that the combined TV and press advertising budget for major launch campaigns such as this can typically be as much as 10 million pounds, to be recouped over the four-year long life-cycle of the model.

In the UK, the New C5 is positioned in the M5 market segment, and classed as a large family car. But here such vehicles are rarely bought new by individual private family buyers paying out of their own pockets. Instead, over 70% of the purchases in this segment are made in the so-called fleet market, by businesses and commercial organizations providing vehicles for  company employees cost-free as part of their remuneration package; These fleets - defined as numbering more than 25 vehicles -. are the only market area showing any growth in the UK today and are therefore vital to all manufacturers.  

The employees for whom the cars are purchased -  known in the motor trade as "user choosers" - are able to select the "company car" of their choice and also to have its fuel and running costs met by their employers, although income tax is levied on the financial value of the total benefit package.

These "user-choosers" represent a difficult market to conquer, for three good reasons. First, they rarely bother to take a test-drive when deciding on the make and model of their next company car. Instead, they make their selection entirely on the basis of specification, valuing most highly the amount of extra equipment and accessories fitted, rather than any inherent engineering virtues. Second, since their cars will typically cover as much as 100,000 miles in a year, they expect excellent build quality and first-class reliability. And third, they demand above all the perceived style and prestige of German cars, especially those from Audi and BMW, which they believe  have the individuality and kudos necessary to stand out among the other, more mundane, fleet cars lined up in the company car park. Regrettably, after several years of being promoted in the UK as a cheap-and-cheerful, heavily discounted budget brand, CitroŽn no longer enjoys the prestige, confidence and admiration that it had among the British motoring public in the days of the DS, GSA, CX and BX, a generation ago.  Hence the controversial  " Echt Deutsch" marketing strategy adopted by CitroŽn UK for the New C5 and translated into television terms by its London advertising agency, Euro RSCG, using the technique beloved by British advertising creatives -  off-beat humour. Unfortunately, as well as being praised by some observers as being funny, their work has also been panned by others as puerile,  insensitive and gauche.

Currently, CitroŽn UK Ltd is the third largest of the Double Chevron company's European filiales after Spain and Italy.

In 2007, its sales totalled 123,280 vehicles of which 97,750 were private cars, representing 4.07% of the UK market. Thus its present strengths lie chiefly in its smaller, less expensive models ( in particular the competitively-priced Xsara Picasso ) and its light commercial vehicles and vans, an area in which it is the UK market leader.

Therefore, in launching the new Mk II C5 in the UK, CitroŽn was, in effect, re-entering a territory from which it has been absent since the departure of the XM. The previous Mk I C5 model found only 56,632 British customers in five years, in a market segment (M5) that in 2007 totalled 376,683 vehicles. Indeed, it could be said that not since the days of the CX has a big CitroŽn achieved widespread popularity in Great Britain, beyond a following of Francophile enthusiasts and dyed-in-the-wool CitroŽnistes. Moreover, in recent years, the marque has been dogged by a reputation for poor reliability and inferior build quality, preventing acceptance of its top-of-the range models  ( including the C6 - only 620 sold in the UK to date ) which have suffered from excessive  depreciation and low residual values,  in comparison with their German and Japanese competitors.

As a prelude to the launch of the New C5, the Slough filiale ran a press campaign in the colour supplements of the weekend newspapers, in conjunction with a website designed to emphasise the differences between CitroŽn and its competitors, by recounting its history of technological innovation. Under the headline " Different is Everything " a tiny figure representing Andrť CitroŽn informed the readers that the new car was about to ruffle some Teutonic feathers. And as if to prove the claim, the double-page ad was illustrated by a bizarre representation of elements of the C5's bodywork, arranged like the feathers of the German spread-eagle. The purpose of this extraordinary advert, of course, was to overcome the doubts and reservations of conservatively-minded potential purchasers, regarding the reliability of advanced components and technologies of which they had no previous experience. Even so, observers noted that it was strange indeed that in the forthcoming new car, CitroŽn's major unique selling proposition, the supple and comfortable ride provided by its hydropneumatic suspension, would be replaced by conventional metal coil-springs "as rigid and aggressive " as anything built in Germany, according to the ad.

This strange production, too, was created by Euro RSCG, a subsidiary of the Paris advertising agency network formerly known as Roux, Seguela, Cayzac & Goudard.  Founded in 1976 by Jacques Seguela ( who first won fame in 1958 when he drove a 2CV around the world )  Euro RSCG  is now part of the giant  French-owned Havas global media conglomerate, in which the Peugeot family has a substantial financial interest. Consequently, the agency enjoys an unusual degree of job security in an industry noted for its volatility and instability.

No matter how ill-considered or ineffective its recommendations, it is most unlikely to be fired by its CitroŽn clients. Currently, the London agency's other British clients include the BMI airline, Barclays Bank, Tesco and, of course, Peugeot.

CitroŽn UK Ltd is the Double Chevron company's oldest subsidiary, being founded by Andrť CitroŽn in 1926 as the first of his overseas enterprises. Yet it is still perhaps the most "foreign"of all these affiliates, sometimes seeming oddly detached from the corporate culture and traditions followed by the rest of the Peugeot-CitroŽn organisation on the Continent. One reason for this disparity is that its personnel ( except for its French managing director ) are mainly British nationals recruited from the British motor industry, who generally lack a deep understanding of the history and heritage of the French automobile industry, of which they are a part. A symptom of this divergence is that, in all its spoken publicity and communications, the Slough company insists on pronouncing its name "Cit-ron", as if it had only two syllables, not three. Perhaps they believe that the British public are incapable of speaking the word correctly, in the French manner..

Only time can tell if CitroŽn UK's controversial strategy will pay off and that the sales of the new C5 will improve on those of its predecessor. Given the present depressed state of the private car market in the UK ( where sales are predicted to fall by as much as 5% overall this year )  the Slough filiale's hopes would seem over-optimistic.  An advertising campaign that creates a furore and wins a dubious award is not always the most effective way of winning new customers in hard-pressed circumstances.

As the spirit of Andrť CitroŽn was invoked in the Slough filiale's notorious "Different is Everything" press ad, it is not unreasonable to ask what the master publicist himself would have thought about this controversy. Would he have allowed his products to be described as "Thoroughly German", thus offending the patriotic pride of his countrymen and women?  And would he have agreed that "any publicity is good publicity", even if it alienates and antagonises so many of those it is meant to impress?  It seems unlikely, to say the least.

John Reynolds is the author of several books about CitroŽn including a biography of Andre CitroŽn published in English by Haynes and in French, by ETAI.

© 2008 John Reynolds/Citroexpert/CitroŽnŽt

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One thing that is perhaps not immediately obvious is that this commercial parodies ‘Triumph des Willens’ - a Nazi propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favourite film director.

Julian Marsh