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JUNE 20, 2020 / VINCE BOND JR. 

In dealer ads, to wear a mask or not to wear a mask?

Ad agency Tier10 now shoots two versions of the commercials it makes for auto dealerships and manufacturers: one with people wearing face masks and one without.

Ad agency Tier10 now shoots two versions of the commercials it makes for auto dealerships and manufacturers: one with people wearing face masks and one without.

Advertisers have a responsibility to produce content that is relevant and empathetic toward what consumers are dealing with, Tier10 co-founder Scott Rodgers said. Having both versions of an ad lets the agency easily re-edit it as mask usage becomes more or less common.

“When you buy a car or service a car, someone’s going to show up with a mask on,” Rodgers said. “It shouldn’t scare you because we’re conveying that we take this serious, and we’re here to protect you.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is steadily reshaping how the dealership environment is presented to the masses, and showing masks is a key piece in some stores’ efforts to convey a dedication to safety and cleanliness. Masks are increasingly showing up in dealerships’ Facebook ads and informational YouTube videos.

Some agencies say they don’t see any drawbacks to dealerships telling consumers that their employees don masks. Health experts encourage wearing them, and certain states require them for anyone who works or shops in an indoor space such as a showroom or service department.

But plenty of people don’t wear them, and masks have taken on political implications many dealers would rather avoid. Some dealers fear alienating consumers or making them less eager to buy a vehicle if an ad reminds them of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen it kind of go both ways from what the dealers have been looking for. Some dealers are wanting to really harness the new norm,” Drake Baerresen, a co-founder of ad agency TurnKey Marketing, told Automotive News. “Then it’s funny, because we have some dealers that don’t want to do that. They want to try to go ahead and not bring more attention on it than there already is.”

Many factors

Hyundai Motor America is using its social channels to tout its Clean Assurance program, a set of guidelines designed to safeguard customers’ health. Hyundai shared a video across social media depicting dealership staffers wearing masks as Barry Ratzlaff, the automaker’s chief customer officer, runs through the safety protocols at the brand’s stores.

Angela Zepeda, Hyundai Motor America’s marketing chief, said depicting masks will depend on an ad’s concept, message and audience. She said the automaker may show mask use when appropriate.

“If the message is focused on the customer shopping and buying experience, masks might be included, like in our recent Clean Assurance initiative,” Zepeda said in a statement. “When it comes to vehicles, the marketing message is tailored to the target audience and the key selling points we are trying to get across. If a storyline reflects a setting where masks would be required, we would consider it, but it’s entirely dependent on the creative concept.”

Baerresen said digital ad content for some of his dealer clients began incorporating mask use in March.

His agency has been sharing with dealers that they need to “give people every reason to come to do business with the dealership” during these times and dispel concerns about unsanitary practices that could be holding them back. Mask use, Baerresen said, has been helpful in service lane promotions, which have been pushing touchless service.

But some stores, even if they’re taking all safety precautions, remain more focused on hawking deals in their ads, he said.

“They’re trying to focus more on the great opportunity to buy a vehicle right now, to lease a vehicle right now, to get your vehicle serviced as opposed to pushing on, ‘Hey, we’re here. We keep our masks on and wash our hands every five minutes.’ ”

One dealer-focused agency, iFrog Digital Marketing, has encouraged dealership clients to wear customized masks with their names on them.

Dave Wilson, founder of the agency and chairman of Preston Automotive Group in Maryland and Delaware, said no customer should be upset if a business is overly cautious. A mask, Wilson said, shows that you care and raises shoppers’ comfort level.

One of iFrog’s clients, BMW of Reading in Pennsylvania, has a Facebook post telling consumers that its salespeople will conduct virtual tours of vehicles for them. The post shows several photos of a staffer wearing a mask.

Another iFrog client, Chapman Ford in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., posted a series of videos on YouTube and its website explaining how staffers get their temperatures checked before working and how they wear their masks.

“I think the disservice is if you’re not acknowledging that there’s a new normal and things are changing,” said iFrog CEO Keith Tomatore.

Matt VanDyke, Ford’s director of U.S. marketing, said some dealers expressed concern that ad content with people wearing masks would scare off customers.

Wilson doesn’t buy into that thinking.

“I don’t think a consumer would ever walk in and say, ‘Why do you have that mask on?’ ” Wilson said. “You want to go where it’s safer.”

Sign of the times

Diana Lee, CEO of Constellation Agency, an automotive marketing company, said it’s important for advertising to stay relevant with the times. Dealers, she said, should portray what’s happening in their communities. For hard-hit areas where masks are more prevalent, advertising should reflect that.

The agency has been chronicling dealerships’ charitable assistance through the Do Good Auto Coalition, a nonprofit it founded. Videos on the group’s website show dealership staffers wearing masks while delivering meals and groceries.

“We want to show what’s happening today, not how we operated back in January. Times have changed,” Lee said.

“I think that we are going to still be operational in this way until at least the vaccine comes out, so I think it’s important to show that relevancy to consumers out there.”

Published in Automotive News on June 20, 2020.