Musings on the Motoring World

BMW’s weird post-modernist car advertisements are putting it on the path of self-annihilation

First things first, I take no pleasure in writing about car advertisements. Advertisements are half-truths wrapped in a shiny and often unscrupulous veneer. Most advertisements annoy with a pathological need to reinforce its corporate slogans and jingle. And only a handful offer something remotely entertaining in its show-stopping brainwashing act. 

…or go all the way and make an advertisement that will live in infamy

I’m aware that one of the first posts this site made was about an advertisement. That article was to wax lyrical over how clever it subverts all the advertisement tropes to deliver its message. Unfortunately, many automakers aren’t as wise or even able to execute such similar advertisements with such nuances. All this brings us to BMW’s unsettling new car advertisements for its iX electric SUV. 

“OK, Boomer”? You OK BMW?

This latest row started back in the month of November of the totally uneventful year of the Lord, 2020. It began with BMW announcing the iX SUV’s debut with the tagline “OK, Boomer” on its Twitter account. Of course, the post went as well as stepping on a landmine while shovelling cowpat. Shit when flying real fast. 

What emerged from internet culture by young’uns to critique – and sometimes disregard – the ideals and worldviews of older folk, had become a divisive subject amongst the very people it targeted. The media, eager to whip up controversy for the clicks, launched the “OK, Boomer” trend into high orbit. 

Whether BMW’s public relations department were intentionally edgy to get the media’s attention or completely oblivious is uncertain. Though, it is likely a combination of the two. What is certain is that the tweet couldn’t have come at a more divisive time for a more divisive subject.  

Fuelled by intergenerational ire

If you haven’t been on social media in the past half-decade, then I envy and applaud you. If you have, you might have noticed a growing dissatisfaction amongst the youth of developed nations. They feel disenfranchised, with their social mobility being stifled by the richest generation in history, the Baby Boomers. Hence, the emotionally loaded use of an otherwise sardonic response. 

It is unfathomable how BMW concluded that this phrase would be an apt way to introduce a new model already embroiled in controversy over its giant grille. One might argue that it is an unapologetic response to the qualms of traditionalists who were outraged at its design. Regardless of the circumstances, it is undeniable that BMW committed the ultimate faux pax – don’t openly disparage your own audience. 

Luckily for BMW, it seems as though someone had not completely lost their minds. Shortly after the tweet whipped up a storm, the company acknowledged the backlash and apologised. Like any social media outrage, the media quickly forgot and moved onto the next. Many believed that BMW had learnt their lesson in social media advertisement. As it turns out, they didn’t. 

BMW’s tone-deaf car advertisements

Assumptions that BMW had learnt its lesson were disproven just two months later at the CES 2021. At the consumer electronics expo, BMW released a peculiar video that ‘showcased’ the capabilities of BMW’s latest infotainment system on the iX SUV. 

To say the video was “positively received” as well as BMW’s controversial new grille is an understatement. The only surprise was that the video didn’t garner a higher dislike ratio despite the criticisms in the comments section. No words could accurately describe what happened in the four-minute video. Like a good train wreck, it is best to watch it for yourself.

In summary, the short video features an old 7 Series getting into a spat with the shiny new electric iX. Complete with a rather contemptuous scene of the oldie getting bricked and pissing itself.

Essentially it’s a cringy intergenerational back-and-forth you experience at every family gathering. Only this time the dialogue seems to be written by suits quenched by rounds of rubbing alcohol. As expected, it went as smoothly as an alcohol-fuelled political debate on the fly.

Strong words were used, which got the media making a fuss, but nothing overtly controversial in the current year. Many found the video perplexing, but one thing was clear. BMW was up to the same antics that got it into the news and hot water back in November. 

Playing your cards right

Maybe the marketing department in BMW is really taking the piss. Alternatively, BMW was already committed to the direction months in advanced regardless of what happens. There is no such thing as bad publicity after all. And the company has been known for risqué car advertisements in the past. 

That said, it isn’t risqué memorably or admirably. Instead, these advertisements show a worrying direction in the way BMW wants to portray itself. Not that BMW is trying to board the internet culture train, a move that works out as well as boarding an actual moving train head-on. But one that breaks all the wrong rules. 

There is nothing wrong with a provocative advertisement. Everyone does love it when their corporate brainwashing material tries to break the mould for their entertainment. However, all promotional materials adhere to a set of unwritten rules. 

The most important tenant is to respect your customers and the products they treasure. No matter how lacklustre the past might have been concerning the present, its achievements still lend a semblance of credence and validity. Advertisement messages shouldn’t disregard these aspects simply to score points or to goad an audience. 

The post-modernist theory

There isn’t a way to accurately portray post-modernism, but plenty of hoyty-toyty types hail the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao as an example. So there you go.

So, what could have inspired these ‘brilliant’ car advertisements from BMW? Well, it is quite likely that post-modernism can give us an explanation towards its weird messaging. Encyclopædia Britannica describes post-modernism as a late 20th-century movement characterised by broad scepticism, subjectivism, or relativism, with an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. 

Okay, that sounds more like a rabbit hole than an explanation, especially for a four-minute internet video. In a nutshell, post-modernism challenges conventions, questioning the validity of values that originated from the Enlightenment. The movement claims to encompass broad facets of everyday life from art to thought and institutions.  

For this article, we’ll examine one aspect of post-modernism, and that is its critique of metanarratives. Philosophers describe metanarratives as stories built on top of stories, or grand overarching stories that a culture tells itself. Like how the lived experiences of a group of people led to the formation of laws or governments. Or more pertinently, the catalyst towards which people attach meaning to objects and organisations.

Post-modernism is sceptical of the credibility of metanarratives. Instead, it chooses to deconstruct and foster fluid and multiple perspectives. Or, as Jean Francois Lyotard puts it, post-modernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives”.

Where post-modernism works

This movement is very prevalent in many forms of media, especially in film. You would have seen and loved many post-modern films such as Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, and Inception. You can thank post-modernism for fusing styles (Blade Runner), overturning the traditional linear narrative (Pulp Fiction) and conceptualising false realities (The Matrix) in film.

The trend of snarky characters, fourth-wall-breaking, and time-bending narratives in film owes its birth to the post-modernism movement. However, this works in film as it is a medium on which viewers can explore different ideas and concepts. But this line of thinking won’t necessarily work in the cogs of real-world institutions. And therein lies the problem with brands trying to adopt post-modernist thinking to the business of car advertisements.  

The significance of the metanarrative

Brands are no different from institutions. The value and legitimacy of these companies lie in their stories. Would Adidas be where it is without the story of Jesse Owen’s 1936 Olympic win? Or would people venerate Apple without the story of Steve Jobs’ struggles, determination, and vision?  

Similarly, the BMW brand stands on the stories of the success of its ‘Neue Klasse’ models, the touring car dominating E30 M3, and the cutting-edge 8 Series. From a post-modernist perspective, which repudiates the metanarrative, these are just dusty old cars. Cars that are nowhere near as safe, technologically advanced, or environmentally friendly as the new iX SUV. See what the CES video is so carelessly implying? 

Now, regardless of what your opinion of the fourth-generation 7 Series is, it was a huge success. At its introduction in 2002, the big Bangle mangled limousine outsold its nemesis, the S-Class, for the third and possibly last year in the model’s history. It also outsold the handsome James Bond-starring predecessor. 

If passed off as nothing more than a sputtering rust bucket that drinks caveman juice petrol, with outdated features, then the advertisement has effectively disowned part of its BMW’s heritage. The raison d’être of why people desire the Roundel badge. Why people think it is better than anything coming out of Hyundai’s Genesis brand. 

All brands depend on the depth and quality of its metanarrative and past achievements. If it didn’t matter, Kia would be smashing it out of the park with the Kia Stinger. And Porsche wouldn’t have spent a Euro on its massive Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen museum. But the Stinger is floundering because it doesn’t have the right narrative, while Porsche has its museum. 

How post-modernist car advertisements are done right

That is not to say that all forms of post-modernism are counterproductive. Creating something in its philosophy to shake up the narrative structure is where it works best. One good example is Mercedes-Benz’s 2012 advertisement with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher. No speed, no stunts, no “spokesperson endorsement”. Yet the same message of ‘performance branding’ and ethos of “win on a Sunday, sell on a Monday” is present. It is unexpected, fun, and it works. 

Post-modernism ideals are best at removing stifling brand associations and heavily corporatized imagery. Thus, handing viewers the avenue to project themselves onto it instead. Even better, used to deconstruct the rigid narrative styles of advertisements can produce something fun, unexpected, and memorable.

What a car advertisement should avoid is challenge the metanarrative of the brand itself. All advertisements serve to project the brand’s values for viewers to judge if they relate or desire it. If it, like the CES video implies, deconstructs or devalues the brand, then it becomes a snake eating its tail.

Car advertisements – A window into the mind

Once again, in the grand scheme of things, these car advertisements are merely short-lived promotional material. Well-produced ones at that, but not a very well thought out at all. So, what is the big deal? Since mental health is a big issue following the events of 2020, take this as a lengthy intervention.

If automakers are like a biological entity, its bottom-line is its health, its public relations are its ego,. Then advertisements offer a prognosis into the state of its mental health. Advertisements are how brands would like others to view it.

BMW built its brand on its early-2000s as a rebellious and often sarcastic Mercedes-Benz challenger. And that depiction served the brand well in attracting a new demographic. Those car advertisements may have taken some swings at rivals, but never once at its heritage. Because the story, the metanarrative, is what people are buying BMWs for. Otherwise, they would be shopping for an Infiniti. To give up on that to be trendy or edgy is in essence, to give up on itself.

Again, take this as a grain of salt. I’m no fan of advertisements and no expert in post-modernism. However, I know a basket case when I see one. And this is an honest letter of concern to the good people of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. Is everything okay up there?