The guy from Porsche was too polite to use an expletive, but his response to seeing the ‘Unmistakeably German’ advert was a mixture of shock and bewilderment. ‘Scheisse!’ would be a good summary.
It was 2013, and I was in Austria for the launch of the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid. I suspect the review has aged as well as my hairline, but it's there if you want it. As is customary for a launch event, a few members of the Panamera project team were mingling at the evening buffet. Canapés, small talk and me doing my best to fit in.
I managed to steer the conversation in the direction of French cars, which is when the subject of the ‘Unmistakeably German’ television ad for the Citroën C5 popped up. He hadn't seen it, so I treated him to an exclusive premiere by making use of the Kitzbühel hotel wifi.
He was lost for words. This could have been due to the fact that some random blogger was showing him a Citroën advert at a Porsche event. His quick-escape-o-radar was scanning the surroundings looking for a proper journo. Goodwin, Towler, May, Bovingdon... maybe the guy in the hat. ‘Wo ist Goffey, wenn Sie ihn brauchen?’
To his credit, the Porsche man laughed. Arguably more in politeness than anything else – it could have resulted in an extra star on the MSN review.
Don't mention the advert
Sensing that my fondness for French cars was jeopardising my chances of being invited back to another Porsche launch, I made my excuses and retired to bed.
I thought no more of the conversation until the next morning when the Porsche chap tapped me on the shoulder at breakfast. He had shared the video with his German colleagues and wanted to tell me that they thought it was excellent. Full German marks from the Porsche team. Wunderbar, etc.
It was one of the most memorable television ads of the decade. Klaus, played by the actor Matthias Gall, leaves his Bavarian castle and heads to Berlin. Having won a fencing duel, he leaves his two blonde children behind, before passing through a countryside laced with German stereotypes.
Gertrude the Bavarian duchess. Ursula the ample-chested barmaid in a dirndl. Wilhelm and his Bavarian brass band. Bockwurst. Gnomes. Lederhosen. The Brandenburg Gate. All set to Richard Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries”.
The only thing that isn't German is the car, which is of course the point of the advert. ‘The New Fünf Series,’ proclaimed one of the tongue-in-cheek press ads. The others being ‘A Touch of Klaus’, ‘Schmitt Hot’ and ‘Deutsche Marque’. Citroën stopped short of asking Klaus to do a John Cleese-style funny walk.
Sense of fünf?
Citroën picked up an award for the ‘Unmistakeably German’ campaign. In a swashbuckling display of fencing, Klaus and his Citroën C5 vanquished the Ford Focus and VW Golf to win the award for ‘Best Car Advertising Campaign’ at the 2008 Motor Trader awards.
Ian Hughes, marketing director of Citroën UK, said: ‘We’re thrilled that this advert is attracting new customers to the brand who are looking for the qualities that they’ve been accustomed to in a well built, yet stylish, package. Dream and reality have met to produce a quality product which is appealing to a new audience.’
Others were less than thrilled. The advert attracted the attention of a group of MPs, who urged Citroën to pull the campaign. ‘That this House notes with regret the stereotypes used by Citroën to market the new C5 as ‘Unmistakeably German’, including imagery, symbolism and style reminiscent of the 1930s; believes this is counterproductive to the reputation of Citroën; and urges it to withdraw the advertisement.’
In response, Citroën described the advert as ‘witty and provocative’, arguing that it was perfect for the target audience. ‘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.’
Not that well. Citroën failed to tempt Klaus and his pals out of their 3 Series, A4s and C-Classes, leaving the C5 to die a slow and agonising death. Just 200 C5s were sold in the UK in 2015, the last full year of sales. The bockwurst had lost its sizzle. The brass band had lost its oomph.
Citroën has stopped short of labelling the campaign a mistake. In an interview with Autocar, Linda Jackson said it ‘was a different era’. The company boss went on to say that ‘we have to forget that’.
It's quite hard to forget something when the advert has been viewed 1.2 million times on YouTube.
The campaign wouldn't be repeated in 2021. The always excellent Citroënet reports that the French found it ‘abysmal and totally thoughtless’, even though it was never officially shown there. Death by social media would be the result if Citroën tried anything similar today. That's if the campaign progressed beyond the focus group stage, which is unlikely.
The irony is that the Citroën C5 has never looked better. With Citroën turning its back on large hatchbacks, saloons and estates, the C5 serves as a reminder of the better days, when French executive cars were still a thing in the UK.
History recalls that adding a touch of German flavour to a French cars rarely works. Francophiles prefer something French, while Germans stick to their own. Me? I really fancy driving a C5 from Bavaria to Berlin, stopping for bockwurst along the way.
The Panamera launch was my last international Porsche event. Was it something I said or something I showed? Probably a bit of both. I'm unmistakeably rubbish at buffets.