Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The tonal quirks and misfires of Zipcar advertising

December 12, 2011 - 03:11 PM
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The nirvana we've all waited for. (Photo: Zipcar)

Speak, Zipcar — but choose your voice carefully.

The world's biggest car-sharing company is a lion in the transportation world and in large part due to killer branding strategies. Zipcar doesn't want to merely be a car-sharing service; it wants to be a lifestyle. The company wants to tweet with personality, to hold low-car diet challenges across the country, to be your friendly neighborhood pal. Zipcar doesn't want a member, you see. It wants a Zipster. The company claims more than 60,000 of the converts in D.C.

What results from Zipcar's smart, strategic desires is a distinct advertising tone, colloquial and informal, which has worked well in the past but lately has seemed particularly zany ... and not always quite so successfully. Cool humor can sometimes translate as psychotic or offensive. Tone is all about nuance.

The latest misfire has offended certain lesbians and gay people, as Zipcar features a large advertisement stating "Some of our best cars are gay" alongside a yellow MINI Cooper. As WUSA observed, this ad is featured at 14th and Corcoran in D.C. and has provoked a variety of reactions. Is it offensive? The phrase hearkens back, I take it, to the popular phrase from 10 years ago — "Some of my best friends are gay" — and alludes to the more feminine qualities of a smaller car. My personal reaction is that the advertisement is not so much offensive as it is poorly executed and confusing to many people. The intended meaning of the ad isn't immediately clear and it comes off as more puzzling than hilarious. The introduction of a sexual orientation also raises the question of offense in a serious way, and I can understand why any gay person would be uncomfortable with this big Zipcar ad.

WUSA surveyed people on 14th Street to illustrate the confusion:

Another strange Zipcar quirk is how they define transportation nirvana for the Washington, D.C. audience. A Zipster recently relayed the equation that Zipcar is featuring on its website to local Zipsters. You ready for this one?

Zipcar + Metro = Transportation Nirvana

Is that the heaven you've waited for, D.C.? This little ad is more goofy than poor and does speak to the real benefits that come with uniting multiple modes of transportation. People who live too far from the Metro may well find themselves wanting to take Zipcars to their local station. WMATA has, after all, partnered with car-sharing services like Zipcar and Flexcar for years, as this WMATA contract shows. "Car sharing is available in Metro Kiss & Ride lots at 41 of the 86 Metrorail stations ... and many other neighborhood locations both near Metrorail stations without Kiss & Ride lots and elsewhere in the region," according to WMATA's site. Clicking the nirvana ad will take Zipsters to a "quick survey" on how they reach and use their Zipcars. I'll accept this one though. Bizarre but perhaps worthy of a laugh, if also a shake of the head.

As I began to consider how Zipcar crafts and articulates its voice, I thought back to another controversy from earlier this fall. Zipcar launched its "Sometimes You Just Need a Car" campaign, which still features prominently on Zipcar's website, in September and frustrated bicyclists who viewed the campaign as dismissive of a bike commuter's ability to get around urban environments. I talked with Zipcar's spokeswoman in October and she emphasized the extent to which Zipcar truly adored the idea of biking — just as I'm sure they would claim about their love and support of anyone who identifies as gay if questioned about their latest ad.

No doubt Zipcar wants to avoid these questions of offense and bemusement. They want you to hear its messages and see the car-sharing giant as a friendly force of benevolence and convenience, a gift to the transportation world. It's a fair enough goal and fits with all the eco-friendly positions the company has staked out as it's grown. But to manifest as the zany friend comes with advertising challenges, and these recent incidents make clear that Zipcar is far from seamless in the way it's executing its calls for car-sharing. These ads attempt to provide a playful, human voice but fall flat.

Why? Who's the personality emerging throughout these slick advertisements, Zipcar? The identity at times seems unhinged.

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